2013-02-14 / Front Page

Christie: Rebuild and they will come

Gov. says buyouts could be considered at request of towns
BY KENNY WALTER
Staff Writer


Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), listens as Gov. Chris Christie announces $1.8 billion in funding allocated to the state for recovery from superstorm Sandy during a Feb. 7 press conference in Sea Bright. The funding, which will be administered by HUD, will be used to repair storm-battered homes and businesses, as well as flood mitigation projects. 
KENNY WALTER staff Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), listens as Gov. Chris Christie announces $1.8 billion in funding allocated to the state for recovery from superstorm Sandy during a Feb. 7 press conference in Sea Bright. The funding, which will be administered by HUD, will be used to repair storm-battered homes and businesses, as well as flood mitigation projects. KENNY WALTER staff The recovery for storm-battered towns like Sea Bright cleared a big hurdle last week as the federal government allocated $1.8 billion to the state for Sandy recovery.

During a Feb. 7 press conference at the Sea Bright firehouse on Ocean Avenue, Gov. Chris Christie announced the allocation, which he said would help bring tourists back to Shore towns by summer by funding rebuilding and flood mitigation projects.

“We know 100 days into this thing we are nowhere near ready for what we are going to confront this summer, which is a bunch of tourists who are going to want to come down here and use Sea Bright’s beaches,” Christie said.

“I believe by the time the summer comes we will be ready to get those tourists back here.”

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is administering the funds, said during the press conference that the funding will be awarded through Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).

“One of the reasons that Governor Christie fought so hard for this Community Development Block Grant money is because it is the most flexible dollars we have to help recovery,” he said.

“This first chunk of this money we expect to largely be focused on homeowners and small businesses,” he added.

Donovan said the majority of the funds are expected to fill gaps in funding provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), private insurance and other governmental grants and loans. He also said a small portion of the money would go to infrastructure projects.

The funds are part of a $60 billion superstorm Sandy relief package approved last month by Congress.

The $1.8 billion awarded to the state is part of a $5.4 billion grant package awarded to five states and New York City. According to Donovan, a total of $16 billion will eventually be awarded through the CDBG program.

Though the money has been allocated, the state must still submit a plan for HUD’s approval of how the funds will be spent.

Christie said the state is working with HUD to develop a plan for the funding.

“Our staff here in New Jersey and the staff at HUD have worked seamlessly together, providing the information that they need to support the supplemental [aid],” he said.

“I am committed to working with him to make sure the president’s vision of what we need to do is implemented in addition to the vision that I have and each one of these communities have.”

Christie stressed that the first round of funding would not be used for buyouts, but did not rule out this option in the future.

“We are not going to apply for money for buyouts in the first $1.8 billion,” he said. “It makes no sense to buy one or two of these homes, if you are going to do it you need to buy out an entire neighborhood.”

According to Christie, the Department of Community Affairs will look at buyouts, and there has been some initial interest in Union Beach, South Amboy and Sayreville.

“If there is some consensus, then during the next round we apply that is something we will consider asking HUD to fund, but it is certainly not something I am going to make the decision to condemn certain areas of the state and tell them not to build there,” he said. “I am not comfortable using that authority, we have it if we need to.”

Donovan said the grant program would help prevent damage from future storms.

“The basic choice we are making here is, as we are rebuilding, do we rebuild in a way so that the next time are we going to have the same kind of damage or do we invest in elevating those homes,” he said. “Frankly it seems like that 100-year storm is coming every few years now.

“We all have to decide to rebuild smarter and stronger, and one of the things this CDBG money can be used for is to help families elevate their homes.”

According to Donovan, every dollar the government spends on mitigation saves $4 down the road.

While the $1.8 billion will help local homeowners and businesses, Donovan said there is still a lot of work that must be done for recovery.

I can’t promise you everything is going to be fixed tomorrow, for some folks it’s a couple years before they rebuild,” he said. “We need to keep coming back, keep pushing and you need to keep your spirits up to make sure this happens.”

Since the Oct. 29 superstorm, local officials have urged property owners in flood zones to elevate their structures to prevent future damage and to qualify for lower flood insurance rates.

According to Donovan, increased flood insurance rates for properties at lower elevations in flood zones will not take effect for another two years.

“It gives folks some time to make a decision about elevating and understanding what the rates are going to be,” he said.

A portion of the $1.8 billion grant could also be used for properties that were not damaged during superstorm Sandy, but whose owners want to elevate their structures.

“We will be working with the state to make decisions about that CDBG money and to see if there is a way to allocate some of that money to folks who have [property that has] not been damaged but want to elevate,” he said.

Donovan said the majority of the funding would be spent to help property owners rebuild and mitigate damaged structures.

“There are many things that you could do to protect buildings and structures that may be vulnerable,” he said. “There are lots of options and we have more than 300,000 homes damaged. For the vast majority of communities, homeowners, businesses, the issue is about rebuilding.”

Donovan also noted there will be a review to ensure that every federal dollar is spent responsibly.

Sea Bright was especially battered during the storm, with surging waters from the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River flooding the borough, damaging 500 to 600 properties.

Christie said prior to the press conference that he visited Bain’s Hardware, one of the few Sea Bright businesses to reopen since the storm.

“It is so great to see everybody getting reopened and working,” he said.

HUD will also use information gathered by FEMA and the Small Business Association to expedite the time it takes for the grant money to trickle down to property owners.

“There are still families and businesses that have not registered because they cannot afford a loan or there is some reason they haven’t come in yet,” Donovan said. “The primary way we made the decision of how much money to distribute was the unmet needs for housing and businesses for the folks who have come in for FEMA aid.

“So if we don’t know you’re there we can’t make money available.” Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long praised both Christie and Donovan for the grant package.

“As you know, the issues of recovery and rebuilding are crucial for us every day in our post-Sandy life,” she said. “It is an incredible thrill to be standing here today with Gov. Chris Christie, who has been a tireless advocate for us.

“We are doubly thrilled to have U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan here with us.”

Long said she is continuing to advocate for the borough.

“I have been filling their heads with all kinds of ideas of what we are experiencing here locally,” she added. “This has been a challenging time and the last 100 days have really been surreal.”

Christie joked that Long is working any way she can to help Sea Bright.

“The mayor, of course, is always selling Sea Bright,” he said. “She tried to sell me some beach badges, said I can get them for half price right now, but I didn’t bite yet.

“She is a tireless salesperson for your town,” he added.

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