FEMA to Connecticut: We’re going to be here for a while

Nearly a month after Superstorm Sandy hit the region, thousands of Connecticut residents are still in need of help, federal and state officials said Tuesday.

Speaking at a federally designated Disaster Recovery Center in downtown Bridgeport, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate promised, “We will not stop until everyone’s life is back to normal.”

More than 300 FEMA staff members are on the ground in Connecticut, Fugate said: “How long is FEMA going to be here? We’re going to be here a while…we’re talking years.”

Finch and Malloy

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, right, talks about his city’s continuing needs following Superstorm Sandy. Gov. Dannel Malloy, left, said the number of people requesting government assistance continues to grow.

Close to 10,000 residents have asked for help from the federal government in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and about $8.5 million has been distributed to them.  That does not include claims made by larger businesses or by local governments and government agencies.

Gov. Dannel Malloy said he expects that number to continue to grow. About 800 applications for assistance were made just in the past eight days.

“We will continue to work. People will see recovery,” Malloy said.

The state is still not ready to release a dollar-figure damage assessment. Malloy said he expected it would be far less than those in New York and New Jersey, since the impact of the storm was less severe in Connecticut, and also because Connecticut residents tend to be more insured than those in neighboring states.

Still, “this is our third bite of the apple in a very short period of time,” Malloy said, referring to Sandy as well as Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, which hit the state hard last fall. The number of requests for help after Sandy so far is higher than the number from last year’s two storms combined.

While FEMA does not keep track of the number of people who may have been displaced temporarily or permanently from their homes, evidence suggests there is a contingent of such people in Connecticut. Nearly all of those asking for help from FEMA applied for “housing assistance,” which includes rental assistance. But those needing just home repairs are also included in that number.

In Bridgeport, Mayor Bill Finch said the suffering of residents is still acute, especially in poor neighborhoods where people went several days without power and lost valuable foodstuffs.

“I think we neglected the poor people and the elderly people,” he said. “…I want to see a greater sensitivity to those in need.”

Finch had sharply criticized United Illuminating for what he called a slow response to restoring power to some areas of Bridgeport. In some cases, he said, schools could have opened earlier had utilities done the job quicker.

On Tuesday, he called for utilities to update their response plans to include factors such as poverty in their decisions to prioritize certain areas for power restoration.

Responding to Finch’s comments, Malloy said that Finch “has made that argument forcefully … we’ll look at the points the mayor has made.”

While the total bill that individuals, businesses and local governments ultimately hand to FEMA will be hefty, Fugate said he expects there to be enough money for the ongoing relief efforts. In the long term, though, “we will need additional funds,” he said.

Those funds would include grants for communities to rebuild — and to rethink that process.

Malloy said the state is reviewing its infrastructure along the coastline and taking a look at whether building codes need to be updated. “We lost more roofs than we should have,” he said. He later added, “we probably should get away from multiple rebuild of properties,” referring to the fact that many property owners who suffered damage to their homes were still making repairs from last year’s storms.

Those changes will take time — but time is limited, Malloy warned. Had Sandy not changed her course and sped up, hitting Connecticut less hard than expected, the consequences could have been even more dire. Malloy said the buildup in the Long Island Sound area would have caused damage to downtown Bridgeport, Greenwich, Stamford and Fairfield on the same scale as the damage incurred in New York City.

“We dodged a bullet,” he said.