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Tracking the Federal Sandy Aid Money One Year Later

Where did it go, and how will it help prepare us for future storms?

The Obama administration's $60.4 billion emergency funding request to Congress last December stated that part of the money for recovery and rebuilding should be used "to help the region prepare for future challenges, including future severe storms and coastal flooding, as well as impacts associated with a changing climate."

It also instructed that government officials at all levels should work together "to develop mutually agreed upon assessments of future risks and vulnerabilities facing the region, including extreme weather, sea level rise and coastal flooding, and incorporate these into their recovery planning and implementation."

One year after Sandy, here’s a detailed look at where some of that money has gone, how it’s trickling down to New Jersey, and how portions of it are hopefully being used to make the state safer and more resilient to severe weather along its coast.

As indicated on the pie chart, which represents all federal aid going to all states, the $60.4 billion got reduced to just under $58 billion, as a result of the federal budget sequestration. That includes $9.7 billion in borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program -- to pay out federal flood insurance claims – and $48 billion that Congress allocated to the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. That $48 billion was split between nearly two dozen federal departments and agencies, including the following:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

The largest chunk of federal Sandy aid -- some $15.2 billion -- went to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), which are being distributed locally by the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Included in this total is $2 billion specifically intended for storm mitigation-related projects.

HUD required that each of the states receiving CDBG money prepare a Disaster Recovery Plan, which details how the grantee will promote "sound, sustainable long term recovery planning informed by a post-disaster evaluation of hazard risk, especially land-use decisions that reflect responsible flood plain management and take into account possible sea level rise" and "how it will coordinate with other local and regional planning efforts to ensure consistency."

Among the specific regulations, storm victims in flood-prone areas who apply for CDBG money to repair or rebuild their homes are required to elevate any new or substantially improved structures to at least one foot above the height requirements on the latest FEMA flood maps for their area. FEMA has acknowledged that its maps do not currently take climate change into account, so HUD’s adoption of the additional foot requirement -- known as “freeboard” -- is intended to provide a bit of a buffer, based on weather predictions. New Jersey has had a similar law on its books since the 2007 adoption of its Flood Hazard Control Act. The agency has indicated that it's considering including climate change in future flood maps, but until then, it’s up to state and local governments whether to enact more stringent building requirements than those set by FEMA.

Some environmentalists and planning advocates believe that the threat of rising sea levels means one foot of freeboard isn’t enough to keep people safe over the long term. Indeed, some other states like New York and Massachusetts require two feet of freeboard, while Maryland and Delaware have imposed the two-foot rule for all state-owned structures in coastal areas.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers even goes to far as to recommend residents living in floodplains elevate three to four feet above the FEMA flood map requirements to ensure they’re protected in the coming decades. It points to a study FEMA commissioned several years ago that found the most expensive cost of elevating a building is the first foot, and that the incremental cost of raising it further is relatively small.

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