Connecticut’s U.S. senators reiterate need for Sandy aid

Washington – Lawmakers from states affected by Superstorm Sandy, including Connecticut Sens. Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal, made their cases to Senate appropriators Wednesday for billions of dollars in disaster aid, setting off what’s expected to be a long and hard-fought struggle.

Like Gulf Coast lawmakers whose communities were devastated by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, East Cost lawmakers made their pitches for funds  to cover uninsured losses – and much, much more money to “rebuild smarter and stronger” with new flood control projects and the burying of power lines Lieberman, I-D, said Connecticut needs $3.2 billion in federal aid.

“Although attention has been focused, rightly, on New York and New Jersey, Connecticut is a critical part of this economically dynamic tri-state region,” Lieberman said. “In fact, Connecticut sent support to both states during and after the storm and our own economy depends on the recovery of New York and New Jersey.”

The Obama administration is expected to send Congress a request for a supplemental bill to cover disaster aid this week.

Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey say their states have suffered losses of about $80 billion.

But the White House request is likely to be for much less money. That request is also expected to be trimmed by Congress, especially the GOP-led House.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate in has said his agency will likely run out of money by early spring because of costs associated with Sandy. It’s unclear whether that estimate includes the money for the federal flood insurance program, which is run by FEMA and expected to be swamped by Sandy-related claims.

Fugate on Wednesday declined to tell a Senate Appropriations Committee panel how much more money the White House will ask for FEMA.  But he did say the supplemental aid bill will seek to loosen restrictions on how federal Community Development Block Grants are spent to help uninsured homeowners who were wiped out by the storm.

“The maximum (FEMA grant to homeowners) is $31,000,” Fugate said. “Obviously that’s not going to rebuild a home.”

There was a strong push from lawmakers from Sandy-hit states for federal aid to make their states storm-proof by providing billions of dollars for Army Corps of Engineer flood protection projects and for burying power lines and establishing electric power micro-grids.

“We’re talking about an enormous amount of money to do that type of mitigation,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But Blumenthal, D-Conn., said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“The mantra has to be invest now or pay later,” he said.

Blumenthal said $1 million spent on strengthening a coastal sea wall could prevent $25 million in damages.

“We know what works,” he said. “We know what we have to do.”

The fight for more disaster relief money is expected to last many months and several emergency spending bills will probably be needed.

The initial request for disaster relief comes as Congress looks to avoid a “fiscal cliff”  as a series of tax cuts expire at the end of the year, just days before deep, automatic budget are implemented.

“Will the fiscal cliff… deter or impede aid to recovery?” Blumenthal asked. “My answer is ‘we’re the United States, we can come together.'”