The enormous devastation Sandy wrought on New Jersey two years ago has led to a spate of bills by state lawmakers. Some seek to correct specific infrastructure weaknesses revealed by the storm or address particular problems that have arisen in the course of the recovery effort. Others aim to mitigate the damage of future disasters and employ lessons learned, to ensure that homeowners and municipalities will be less vulnerable to the next big storm.
Here’s a list of 10 of the more significant and interesting laws that have been proposed (and in some cases passed) as a direct result of Sandy. This list is by no means comprehensive, so if there are other important measures that you think we should have included, feel free to note them in the comments section below.
1. Deployment of integrity monitors to audit recovery and rebuilding projects
Concerned that the influx of federal aid might strain the state’s capacity for effective oversight, Democrats led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) sponsored legislation in the aftermath of the storm requiring outside firms to audit all state Sandy contracts larger than $5 million and report suspected waste, fraud, or abuse to the New Jersey Attorney General or the independent Office of the State Comptroller.
The measure became law in March 2013, but the Christie administration took far longer to implement it than supporters had anticipated. When the first integrity-monitoring reports were finally released this past July — 16 months later — Sweeney dismissed them as “almost a whitewash,” saying they lacked details and were “underwhelming to say the least.”
The next batch of quarterly reports is due to be released later this month.
2. Law requiring licensing of home elevation contractors
With more than 365,000 homes significantly damaged or destroyed by Sandy, raising houses on stilts or taller foundations to move them out of harm’s way and comply with new flood-insurance rules suddenly became a big business along the Jersey Shore. But not all contractors were qualified to do this specialized work. After several reports of homes collapsing, injuring workers and causing thousands of dollars in damage, lawmakers of both parties realized they had to take action.
“This type of work has never been done here at this scale before, and we have to take steps to make sure there’s proper oversight and that the work is done safety and correctly,” Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) said in a press release.
Lawmakers drafted a bill requiring that contractors doing home elevations have at least five years experience and assessing fines of up to $25,000 for individuals making false statements about their prior work. Gov. Christie signed the measure into law last June.
“With this law we can provide important regulations to a virtually new industry in the state, providing homeowners with the peace of mind that their contractors are well-prepared for the job,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex).
3. Sandy Bill of Rights
While the first two measures on this list have now become law, Sweeney’s attempt to pass a “bill of rights” to simplify the grant application process for Sandy victims and introduce more transparency into the recovery made it all the way through the legislature, but was ultimately unsuccessful after Gov. Christie issued a conditional veto last May.
The bill would have required “plain language” explanations to storm survivors of their status, and give them greater rights to appeal if they were denied funding. In rejecting the legislation as written, the governor’s office indicated it was inconsistent with federal law and would add “wasteful administrative burdens that will hamper ongoing recovery efforts.”
4. Bill holding insurance companies accountable to state laws
For the second legislative session in a row, State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) have introduced a measure that would hold private companies processing flood-insurance claims for the federal government accountable to state regulators as well. The bill would apply to the so-called “Write Your Own” firms that write policies and issue payouts on behalf of the National Flood Insurance Program. Under the proposal, the claims process would have to adhere to state Department of Banking and Insurance laws and regulations. It would also establish a process for DOBI to enforce provisions of the “Unfair Practice Act,” which outlaws unfair or unreasonably delayed settlements. Although the Assembly version made a bit of progress last session, the Senate bill is awaiting a hearing in the Commerce Committee.
5. Proposal to increase the penalty for crimes committed during a state of emergency
In the two years since the storm, lawmakers in both parties have introduced bills that would tighten the penalties for those accused of looting, rioting, or trespassing in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
“News reports of pilfering and outright defiance of the law during this catastrophe were sickening,” said Assemblyman David Russo (R-Bergen), one of the sponsors. “These kinds of actions are deplorable, and offenders should face a stiff penalty for seeking to profit at the expense of those who are victims.”
Another bill by Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) would increase penalties for contractors who victimize clients during states of emergency.
6. New Jersey Residents Power Protection Act
The authors of Assembly Bill 1561 note that access to essential services, food, and other basic necessities was compromised after Irene and Sandy due to widespread power outages that caused hardship to millions of people. In response, this measure — sponsored by Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Morris) — would require that medical facilities, pharmacies, first aid squads, fire stations, gas stations’ and newly constructed grocery stores all have backup generators. It also requires some community centers to have additional outlets for residents to charge their battery-powered devices. To offset a bit of the expense, they’d be able to purchase these generators without paying sales tax. The measure has been sitting in the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee since it was referred last January.
Several related bills focusing just on healthcare facilities, retirement homes, and gas stations have also received consideration, as have measures that would simply mandate that such facilities install the wiring to make themselves “generator ready,” should the need arise.
7. Reliability, Preparedness, and Storm Response Act of 2012
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, state Senator Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) was a harsh critic of the slow progress utility companies like PSE&G and JCP&L made in restoring services.
“It was apocalyptic in North Jersey in the days following Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “Sometimes, there was no evidence of any activity by the power companies at all.”
In response, he teamed up with Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) and a handful of other lawmakers to sponsor a measure that would require the state Board of Public Utilities to create and enforce service and communication performance benchmarks and reliability plans for electric public utilities to follow. They’d also need to conduct and submit to the BPU a review of strategies to mitigate flooding of power substations located within flood zones.
If BPU found that the utility’s performance was impeded because it failed to implement its service reliability plan or communications plan, the state could impose civil administrative penalties up to $25,000 for each violation, which the utility would not be allowed to recover from ratepayers.
The bill has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate Economic Growth Committee.
8. Bill requiring utilities to bury lines in areas affected by severe weather or natural disasters
A proposal sponsored in the Assembly by David Wolfe and Gregory McGuckin and in the Senate by James Holzapfel (all R-Ocean) would require that all new utility lines installed or repaired in response to damage from major, catastrophic events should be located underground wherever possible, to reduce the occurrence of power outages in the future.
A related bill by Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) that’s also awaiting a hearing would create the New Jersey Task Force on Underground Utility Lines to study the extent to which underground utility lines are currently installed in the state, and to examine the feasibility of burying more utility lines in the future.
9. Proposal for floodmaps to be updated more frequently
After Sandy, it came to light that flood hazard maps maintained by the state Department of Environmental Protection were decades old, even in cases where FEMA had more current maps.
“In Bergen County, we have seen areas devastated by flooding, which was caused by excessive development near local waterways,” said Senator Bob Gordon (D-Bergen). “Outdated flood maps only contribute to the problem. We need to make sure that our flood maps are up-to-date so that local officials, homeowners and business owners have the best information available about the changing flood risks in the area.”
Gordon introduced a bill to amend the state’s Flood Hazard Area Control Act, requiring the DEP. to update its maps at least once every 15 years, or incorporate the latest mapping data from the federal government. The bill is intended to assist local officials when considering proposed projects, as well as potential homeowners and developers when considering building on or purchasing land in areas that may be prone to flooding.
The measure was passed by the Assembly back in May, but is still winding its way through the Senate.
10. Bill to permit statewide early voting
“The problems we saw in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy highlighted the vulnerabilities within our voting system and underscored the need to improve the process,” said Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex) in a recent news release. “The reality is that these are problems that will only recur during the next emergency if we do not improve the current process.”
Those problems included massive confusion, when counties implemented an ad hoc system to allow voting by email and fax. A report by the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic later concluded that the emergency voting measures were insecure and illegal.
As a result, Gill has sponsored legislation along with Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) to permit voters to cast ballots at designated polling places as early as 15 days prior to an election to create “a more predictable process for the electorate.”
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 21-15 last month. It now heads to the General Assembly.