Connecticut lags in use of Sandy relief

As Connecticut’s shoreline continues to struggle after Superstorm Sandy pummeled it seven months ago, tens of millions of dollars in federal assistance the state is eligible for has not reached those who need it.

Some of the delay can be attributed to Congress, which took months to  approve Sandy aid. Some is due to the routine bureaucracy of the federal government. But some of the lag is unique to Connecticut, which has not yet decided how it will spend any of the money it was awarded from a key part of the Sandy relief bill Congress passed in January.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which will allocate $16 billion of the money from the relief bill, has so far announced $72 million for Connecticut. Nearly four months after that announcement, the state has yet to submit its plan for using that money, which must then be approved by HUD.

“It’s enormously frustrating,” said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. “Listen, if we don’t get this money on the street, I don’t care how much you say there is, I don’t care how much you say you want to help. Wanting isn’t getting it there.”

State officials say they will meet the deadline for submitting a plan, which is June 11. But New York City, New York state and New Jersey submitted theirs months ago, and homeowners there are already applying for the billions of dollars in assistance.

“Obviously, we seem to be a little bit behind the curve up here,” said Mark Barnhart, director of economic development in Fairfield. “I don’t know why that is.”

In the town’s beachfront neighborhood, the telltale signs of storm damage -– large dumpsters and storage pods -– are in almost every driveway or backyard. Many homes are marked for demolition or have already become empty lots.

More than 1,300 homeowners in Fairfield suffered enough flood damage to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and nearly 900 of those still have “unmet needs,” which means money from FEMA won’t cover enough of their expenses. Many of them are also still waiting for that money and fighting with their insurance companies, Barnhart said.

For them, the possibility of even just a few thousand dollars of the $72 million in federal assistance could be crucial. Barnhart said he knows of dozens of families in the Fairfield beach neighborhood who are staying with family or even in motels, waiting to return to their homes.

The story is very much the same in the neighboring town of Milford, where 1,070 people registered with FEMA and 646 of them are estimated to have “unmet needs.” Tom Ivers, a Milford official, said that number is likely too low.

Waiting for the state to figure out how to administer the Sandy relief money, he said, is “very costly. For every month that goes by, that’s another month’s rent that somebody’s got to find the money to pay…it’s just tremendously frustrating.”

The state Department of Housing, which is administering the funds, has said it expects to use $56 million to give grants to owners of single- and multi-family homes to repair storm damage and raise their properties out of the floodplain. Some $4 million will help small businesses, $2.2 million will go toward repairing public facilities, and $6 million will be used for administration and planning.

But the agency has provided few other details beyond that. It must submit a more formal, detailed “action plan” to the federal government before the money begins to flow and homeowners can apply for assistance.

The Department of Housing’s commissioner, Evonne Klein, said she expects homeowners to be able to apply starting this summer. Still, the agency says it will need 10-15 durational employees to help administer the funds, but has not yet posted any hiring notices.

Klein began working as commissioner a few weeks ago.

“This was something that, when I walked into the job, I didn’t know would be part of at the time,” she said, referring to the Sandy relief money. She added, “I’m the only employee in the Department of Housing so far.”

The agency is racing to complete its action plan in time. It has not yet taken the required step of releasing a draft to the public for a seven-day public comment period. The final draft is due June 11.

Ivers said it’s hard to believe that the state will have any time to incorporate any of the comments into the final plan. But, he said, “I’d rather deal with that than go another week.”

Klein and other state officials insist there is no delay in preparing their plan for the Sandy relief money, despite the fact that New York state, New York City and New Jersey are already beginning to administer their own funds.

“Connecticut was in a very different position than New York and New Jersey,” said Andrew Doba, spokesman for Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Not a ‘focal point’

For those states, Sandy was  a “focal point,” Doba said. “But for us, it wasn’t. It wasn’t as bad here.”

Local officials disagree. They say they are clamoring for help, not just for homeowners who suffered damage and want to protect their houses against future storms, but also for their own infrastructure.

They hoped the Sandy relief dollars would also help repair beaches and coastline infrastructure, and to protect critical structures, like sewer treatment plants, power plants and public housing complexes, from future storms.

Norwalk, Stamford and Bridgeport need hundreds of millions of dollars to either raise public housing on the waterfront or move the complexes out of the floodplain altogether. Bridgeport alone asked for $50 million of the Sandy relief dollars to relocate one of its complexes which suffered significant damage during Sandy and Irene the year before.

In Stonington, as legislator Urban said, “We had significant structural homes to a lot of homes and a lot of businesses. We definitely got slammed.”

Urban speculated that the delay in Connecticut’s plan for the money may have something to do with other matters that have been pressing for the governor and the legislature, including gun control and the budget deficit. But that makes quick administration of federal dollars even more important for the state, she said.

“The state is strapped. You know what’s going on with our budget … we are waiting on that money.”