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Katrina Recovery Expert Explains How Sandy Aid Money Will Be Spent

1-18-13

It’s been nearly 80 days since superstorm Sandy tore through New Jersey, leaving a trail of destruction along the Jersey coast. Impacted residents continue to wait for federal assistance. The House finally approved a $51 billion relief package for Hurricane Sandy victims earlier this week. The U.S. Senate is expected to approve the aid bill when it convenes next week. NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor sat down with Dr. Edward Blakely, who led the recovery effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to discuss how the aid money will be distributed.

Many local leaders in New York and New Jersey have argued that recovery efforts have been delayed as a result of Congress dragging its feet. But according to Blakey, the pressing steps needed to start the recovery process have already begun in both states. Now that it appears that federal assistance is on the way, Blakely explains that the money will be directed towards FEMA repair assistance and HUD block grants.

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The FEMA repair money must go to repair civic facilities, but unlike prior situations like with Katrina, the Sandy aid comes with new strings attached, says Blakely.

“That money this time around, as I understand it, will require that the buildings be safe for new storms. That was previously not a requirement,” he said. “That means the communities will not only have to prioritize but they have [to have] plans to show that these buildings will be safer than they were before.”

As for the HUD block grants, Blakely says that money will go toward not just civic facilities, but to housing and infrastructure projects. Use of the money will be aimed at a coordinated effort, rather than piecemeal projects.

“[The administration] will be looking to see systematic improvements and how the community will be safer. So not only will you have to improve the street, the gutter or the curb, but you’ll have to show that the runoff from a storm or something like this will not flood the city,” Blakely explained. “So this administration is taking a very hard look at the future while it’s awarding money for the damage that was done in the past.”

But some municipalities along the Jersey Shore, in anticipation of the tourist season, have already begun to rebuild. According to Blakely, that type of presumptive action prior to congressional approval would not have been sanctioned in the past.

“But it could be that the president using his authority allowed some building to get started [or] FEMA has allowed building to get started,” Blakely speculated. “But generally, you have to have full approval before you start building. You know that was a very big problem in New Orleans.”

Now that the recovery effort is about to get an infusion of federal dollars, Blakely cautions local leaders and residents alike against a rush to rebuild quickly, arguing for a cautious approach that will yield better long-term results.

“You and I know that if we took a little more time on that front porch or a little bit more time on good construction, the building lasts longer, stronger roof, etc. So even with your personal building I would caution people [to] be sure to do it right. We had [Tropical Storm] Irene, then Sandy, what’s gonna be next, Sam? so let’s be careful here to rebuild not quickly but smartly and it can be done.”

While he doesn’t profess to be an engineer, Blakely cites as an example of smarter building a reevaluation of how a building’s first floor is to be used so as to mitigate flooding damages.

“That first floor of the building should be used for something else — to park the car in, the rec room or something — and people should elevate in most cases, ” said Blakely. “There are very few instances in which low-lying, low-level buildings will be able to survive even a small event.”

Whatever the dollar amount of the aid package is, Blakely says there is never enough money, and towns and cities will be forced to make some hard choices.

“In New Orleans, we had to decide do we need 13 parks or maybe four really good ones, do we need 20 fire stations or maybe six really good ones, do we need a library and a school or maybe a school library combined. I think those kinds of decisions need to be made and they need to be made now.”