Washington -- Of $16 billion in special federal disaster funds released for recovery projects in states damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Connecticut has been awarded only about 1 percent. It's an amount some local officials say is not enough to help rebuild.
Despite bitter opposition from conservative lawmakers, the Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants were funded in a massive Hurricane Sandy bill Congress approved about 18 months ago. The money was meant to give state and local governments flexibility in how to recover from the disaster and was distributed in three rounds or “tranches.” The last round of grants was announced about two weeks ago.
In that last round, Connecticut was awarded about $11.4 million and the city of Bridgeport $10 million. New York state, New Jersey and New York City received a combined total of nearly $2.5 billion.
The grants followed a trend that began when the first dollar in federal Sandy money was allocated to the storm-damaged states. Connecticut’s neighbors, much harder hit by Sandy, have received nearly all the federal response money, leaving some Connecticut local officials – including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District -- disappointed.
“Connecticut residents, particularly along our southern coast, are still recovering more than a year after the devastation of Sandy,” she said. “This third batch of funds is not sufficient to allow us to finish rebuilding our infrastructure, or strengthen it for further storms, as it was meant to do. “
DeLauro said she will continue to work with her congressional colleagues “so that Connecticut can get whatever available funds may still be out there.”
One city official who would only speak on condition of anonymity said the money the state has received to recover from Sandy “isn’t enough to fund a single project that would make the coastline stronger.”
In total, Connecticut has received about $159 million in CDBG block grant money. New York, New Jersey and New York City, meanwhile, have received a total of nearly $13 billion.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the disparity is based on need. HUD allocates CDBG money based on the “best available” data from the FEMA, the Small Business Administration disaster loan programs, the Department of Transportation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which identified “the areas of greatest need in the region impacted by Hurricane Sandy.”
When the last amount of grant money was announced by HUD about two weeks ago, Gov. Dannel Malloy thanked President Obama and HUD officials for “their ongoing commitment to Connecticut. “
“There is more work to be done, of course, and I will continue to advocate on behalf of the state for more resources to support our efforts to rebuild stronger from Hurricane Sandy,” Malloy said.
But Congress isn’t likely to appropriate more money for Sandy recovery, so finding those funds may be difficult.
CDBG grant money is not the only money Connecticut has received from Washington to recover from the storm.
Connecticut residents hurt by Sandy have received about $13 million in housing assistance and about $250 million in flood insurance claims from the FEMA. The state has also received a number of grants from other federal agencies to respond to the super storm.
But what the state has received from the federal government is a fraction of the $3.2 billion the Malloy administration said it needed from the federal government nearly two years ago. Most of the money sought -- $2.58 billion -- was requested to bury power lines and upgrade the state's power transmission systems, projects that were never realized.
Federal money used to help homeowners
Connecticut has used about half, or about $72 million, of its CDBG funds to establish a program to help homeowners who suffer uninsured Sandy losses.
But 18 months after the storm battered the coast, not a single home has been repaired under the program – perhaps because of the red tape involved.
Qualified applicants must be fully vetted. If they meet qualifications, state-hired architects and engineers will eventually assess the damage to a qualified applicant’s home and write up an estimate.
Then the job is bid out to a a number of state-approved building contractors. The Department of Housing eventually pays these contractors directly -– the homeowner does not receive any money.
The grant program will only pay to restore a home to its original state -- unless architects say mitigation efforts such as raising the structure are needed. Homeowners have to pay for any upgrades.
Low-income homeowners receive priority, and only primary residences are eligible for help
James Watson, spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said as of last week, 283 applications have been assigned to architectural and engineering firms and most of those applicants have given their permission to have their property evaluated.
Watson said 32 projects were denied because either there was no unmet need or the unmet need was below the minimum $10,000 grant award. Another 129 properties have been issued a “notice to proceed,” granting approval to complete environmental statutory checklist, hazardous material testing, soil borings and construction documents preparation, Watson said.
He also said there are 27 projects with preliminary cost estimates that exceed the $150,000 maximum grant award and “we are presently awaiting confirmation of additional funding from the homeowners” to be able to fix these homes.
Watson said he did not know how the latest award of $11.4 million will be spent. He said the Malloy administration is waiting for guidelines to be printed in the Federal Register in the coming weeks.
Before the latest award of block grants, all CDBG money in Connecticut went to the state government.
But the Obama administration last year announced a new competition for Sandy-hurt communities that could come up with the best blueprints to maximize resilience as they rebuild and recover from major disasters.
Designers submitted a $200 million proposal on Bridgeport's behalf, but did not receive any funding through the “Rebuild by Design” competition. The winners were six New York and New Jersey cities and towns.
Yet Bridgeport was granted a much smaller grant in the amount of $10 million to help the city move residents of Marina Village and Seaside Village, two low-income and low-lying housing complexes located there.
While he did not receive the money he had hoped for, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch is proud his city is the only jurisdiction outside New York and New Jersey to receive a Sandy HUD grant.
He said “resiliency costs a lot of money” and hopes for more outside help -- from the state or Washington, D.C. to protect Bridgeport from flooding, a consequence of climate change, he says.
“The water is rising faster than we can stop it,” Finch said.
One thing is certain, local officials like Finch will find it difficult to tap Sandy CDBG money for their needs.
In a move that infuriated New York and New Jersey lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Obama administration announced over the weekend that the remaining $1 billion in CDBG funds appropriated in the Sandy bill will be used to award “Rebuild by Design” grants in an nationwide competition.
Under the rules of the new program, states in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region will be eligible to compete for only about $180 million, “to help address critical housing needs.”
“It is neither prudent – nor does it make sense – to deny vital aid to thousands of Sandy victims for whom recovery assistance was intended,” Menendez said. “Congress didn’t mean for disaster assistance to be a disaster relief lottery that anyone can win.”