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Investigation Reveals Sandy Energy Grant Program Riddled With Errors

Elsewhere in town, generators at several of the city’s fire stations failed after taking on water, so firefighters were unable to recharge their equipment. What's more, the department’s radio repeater system located atop the Stevens Institute of Technology Administration Center building was supposed to maintain power when the university’s backup generators kicked in, but that didn’t work as planned. “All of my fire companies were out, and I had no way of communicating with them,” recalled Fire Chief Richard Blohm.

Meanwhile, officials were struggling to find ways to communicate disaster-recovery information to residents. They resorted to posting handwritten messages on bulletin boards in key locations around the city.

hoboken firechief
Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm.

All this was still fresh in the mind of Mayor Zimmer a few months later when she delivered her annual State of the City address and called for a variety of measures to harden the power grid and make Hoboken less vulnerable. Along with proposals to build a giant flood wall to protect the city, manage stormwater runoff, and ensure sustainability and resiliency, Zimmer spoke of the need to build a micro power grid with backup energy sources. Redundant power was necessary, she said, for critical infrastructure like the police and fire departments, city hall, hospital and supermarket.

It wasn’t just Hoboken that was thinking about energy resiliency.

After New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management announced early last year that it was handing out money from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for projects to lessen vulnerabilities to future storms, more than half of the 1,550 letters of intent it received from municipalities and other entities around the state were for backup diesel and natural gas generators – the single most-requested type of project.

Recognizing the need, state officials set aside $25 million in HMGP funds to create the Energy Allocation Initiative, but even that amount paled in comparison to the demand, which was nearly 10 times as much.

To sort through proposals from over 400 applicants, state officials convened a working group composed of representatives from the Office of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Protection, Board of Public Utilities, and Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to develop a scoring and ranking system. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sustainable Jersey also participated, but they were not directly involved in the scoring.

Although the scoring process appears rigorous, it was not applied with the same rigor -- or even consistently -- across the board. And while NJ Spotlight chose to home in on Hoboken and Brick Township, because they were most suitable for a one-to-one comparison, we uncovered numerous other anomalies. Among our findings:

  • Atlantic City didn’t get any funding at all because it was shortchanged in the FEMA Public Assistance category and because its application for generators at five of its fire stations and five of its shelters was grouped on the score sheet as a single request.

  • Belmar’s request to fund a generator for an emergency evacuation shelter was similarly denied because it didn’t receive any credit for its public assistance history, despite having asked for more than $2.6 million over the past 15 years.

  • Jersey City’s $3.5 million request for 22 generators only received an allocation of $159,840 because it was given just a single line item on the score sheet. The city also missed an opportunity to get backup power for its traffic lights because that application was shortchanged in the FEMA Public Assistance ranking.

  • One of Bloomfield’s requests for its fire station was turned down because it received an improper number of points.

  • Though it’s been awarded some $825,000, Newark had several of its requests denied due to fluctuations in public assistance points that can’t be explained by the source data.

The scoring irregularities appear to have worked the other way as well. Morristown and Nutley incorrectly received hundreds of thousands of dollars for backup generators despite having comparatively little disaster history. Had the scoring been done properly, it appears that none of their requests would have been approved. Likewise for Cresskill, Dover, Monroe Township (Middlesex County), Mount Arlington, North Caldwell, and Old Tappan.

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