When Sandy made landfall last October, displacing 120,000 from their homes, NJ Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable said his department took immediate action to provide shelters and assist towns with their budgetary problems. State Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson called all hands on deck to repair roads and make them passable in what he said was record time. And Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said the DEP worked long hours to remove millions of cubic yards of debris and begin securing easements from coastal property owners to rebuild beaches.
“It’s been one hell of a year for all of us,” said Martin, summing up the feeling in the room from his fellow panelists at the Atlantic City Convention Center yesterday.
Martin, Simpson, Constable and Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden spoke at the annual conference of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, attended by more than 18,000 elected officials and exhibitors from throughout the state. The panel was a chance for members of Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet who rarely make public comments about the Sandy process to share the administration’s perspective on where the recovery stands, one year later, and what challenges remain for their agencies.
DCA Commissioner Constable – who was criticized along with the governor’s “Storm Czar,” Marc Ferzan, for not appearing at a series of hearings on the Sandy recovery — sought to respond to concerns that Sandy aid money was not being handed out fast enough.
“I know there’s a lot of folks that are saying, ‘Well it’s a year later, people are out of their homes, municipalities aren’t where they need to be,’” he said. “It’s important if you talk about the Community Development Block Grant dollars to recognize that we’ve only had this aid as a state for six months. Not a year,” he explained, noting that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t approve the DCA’s action plan and begin the flow of money until April 29.
Of the $1.8 billion that was allocated in the first tranche of CDBG funding, Constable said New Jersey has so far spent more than $500 million.
“We are way ahead as a state of our sister states, New York and Connecticut, as well as in an historic perspective,” he said. “If we look at where Louisiana and Texas and Mississippi were after they received their CDBG allocation, we are literally miles ahead. Now, that’s not good enough if you’re a homeowner out of your home, but I just want to put these things in context so people recognize where we are,” he continued, speculating that the entire recovery process will take eighteen to twenty-four months.
DOT Commissioner Simpson, who referred to Sandy as a “transportation Armageddon,” said the biggest lessons from the storm were the need to have contractors and designers on-call and ready to help in the event of a disaster, as well as plenty of reserve fuel supplies for first responders. The DOT’s biggest challenge going forward, he explained, is building resiliencies into the state’s public transit system.
“New Jersey moves a quarter of a million people into Manhattan within four hours [every] weekday,” via PATH, busses, ferries, cars and NJ Transit trains, he said. With the Holland Tunnel and several rail tunnels flooded in the days after Sandy, about 130,000 commuters were stranded and unable to get to work. As a result, Simpson said his department is working with the US Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratories to study the feasibility of creating a microgrid system to quickly restore service to NJ Transit, Amtrak, PATH trains and the Hudson-Bergen Lightrail in the event of future power losses. Simpson said it would be the first of its kind in the country.
DEP Commissioner Martin spoke of the difficulty in making repairs to the 70 public water supply companies and 100 wastewater treatment plants that experienced damage, and the use of EPA grants and loans to make them more resilient over the long term. He noted that the administration has earmarked $300 million in FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to acquire 1300 homes in flood-prone areas, and said the goal is to make offers to 500 homeowners by May of next year.
“The governor’s made it crystal clear that our mission still is to fix this state and bring back some normalcy to the towns and communities that are affected by Sandy,” he said. As time goes on, Martin speculated that it may be a challenge to continue focusing on the storm recovery as his agency and others are forced to simultaneously go about their normal, everyday work.
On another topic, Martin responded to some environmentalists who’ve called for New Jersey to incorporate longer-term climate predictions into its storm recovery. Asked whether he’d consider following the lead of other states like New York and Maryland and mandate that coastal residents elevate their homes more than one foot above the FEMA flood maps to be safe from rising sea levels, he said he thinks the one foot “freeboard requirement currently on the books should give New Jersey adequate protection “for a very long time,” which he defined as 30 to 60 years into the future.
“Obviously, as time moves on, we’re going to have to reevaluate that, but we are very comfortable that that elevation is the right place to be,” he said.
Martin added that he didn’t want his department to make it too cumbersome or prohibitive for homeowners to rebuild.
“The governor wants to build quickly, build with the right resiliency now, but also have a long-term game plan,” he said, noting that there are several university studies currently looking at more distant projections. “There’s a short term challenge, and there’s a long-term challenge. We felt we met both of those at the same time.”