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After irate Sandy rhetoric, long funding process awaits

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Rep. Christopher Smith and Rep. Peter King speak to the media after a meeting regarding the Sandy aid bill with Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner on Jan. 2, 2013 on Capitol Hill.

“Disgusting ... outrageous ... callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state,” fumed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his protest over the House not voting Tuesday night on an emergency bill for states hit by last October’s superstorm Sandy.

Republican House members from New Jersey and New York joined him in an angry chorus – but the rhetoric has obscured a couple of vital facts:

• There are some Federal Emergency Management Agency funds now available even without any congressional action.

• More importantly, relief funds can take months or even years to flow to disaster-hit states. Disaster recovery can be a slow, cumbersome and mind-numbingly complex process. More than seven years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, officials in Louisiana are still administering FEMA Katrina aid.

A FEMA spokesman said Thursday the Disaster Relief Fund – the main account used to fund disaster recovery – is anticipated to continue without immediate need for funding until the early spring.

Congress votes to expand borrowing authority for Sandy flood claims

And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told Congressional Quarterly on Tuesday that FEMA “has plenty of money for the immediate needs through at least February. I’m sure by then we would have passed whatever is necessary to keep them going through the fiscal year.”

But there’s much more to disaster recovery than FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie criticizes Congress for delaying relief funds for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

On Friday the House and Senate voted to provide $9.7 billion in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program which insures property owners in flood-prone areas. The program collects premiums from the insured, but borrows from the Treasury when premiums are insufficient to pay claims. The funds must be repaid with interest – although the program isn’t now in any position to repay.

FEMA notified Congress Wednesday that without congressional approval of additional borrowing authority, funds available to pay, flood insurance claims would be exhausted “sometime around the week of Jan. 7, 2013.”

FEMA said that to date nearly 140,000 NFIP claims have been made and $1.7 billion has been paid to those impacted by the storm.

NYC transit system in jeopardy
On the Senate floor Friday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the $9.7 billion “a small down payment.”

He said the House should simply pass the $60 billion Sandy aid bill which the Senate passed Dec. 28.

He said “we’re worried” that the House will not pass the Senate measure, but will, in its own version of the bill, provide less than $60 billion or put conditions on the funding.

“The draft (of the House bill) that we have seen contains some major changes from the Senate bill that would make it very difficult” for some federal agencies to spend money on Sandy relief efforts, the New York Democrat said.

House Speaker John Boehner was slammed by even fellow Republicans for his decision to cancel Tuesday's vote on $60 billion in emergency relief for victims of superstorm Sandy. No one was more outspoken than Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., shares his reaction to the situation.

Homeowners in the storm-afflicted areas in New York cannot get a building contractor to sign a contract to do rebuilding, or get a bank to OK a loan “until they know the federal government will be there to reimburse, as it always has in the past,” he said.

He added that the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York “will be in real financial jeopardy unless it’s assured that it will reimbursed for all the damage that Sandy caused to our railroads and our tunnels and our mass transit system.”

The draft of a House bill on Sandy disaster relief includes not only an additional $11.4 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund but $16 billion for the Community Development Fund under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as Sandy-related funds for agencies ranging from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund.

Full Sandy coverage from NBCNews.com

The $150 million for fisheries in Alaska, New Hampshire and elsewhere that had been in last month’s Senate Sandy emergency bill were not in the House bill. But the House bill would spend $5 million “for necessary expenses related to fishery disasters resulting from impacts of Hurricane Sandy.”

Katrina delays
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, will try to get the money for Alaska fisheries added back to the Sandy bill or to another vehicle.

Arguing for fishery disaster money to be included in the Sandy bill last month, Begich said, “The disasters that are declared for fisheries in this bill have been declared disasters. It is not some pie in the sky, some pork, or we sit around and say: Let's get some money for every state. These are actually declared disasters by the states and our federal government that need to be funded.”

Even apart from wrangling over whether some money belongs in a particular disaster bill, history shows that disaster funds can take months or even several years to be appropriated and then to flow to the affected towns, cities and counties.

Wayne Parry / AP

Huge piles of debris still line portions of Route 35, the main highway through the shore in Toms River N.J. Friday, Jan. 4, 2012.

Christie may have created a misimpression when he said Wednesday that within 10 days after Katrina struck, Louisiana and other states “had their money in hand.”

Katrina hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. President George W. Bush signed two Katrina spending bills totaling $62.3 billion, one signed on Sept. 2, 2005 and the other on Sept. 8, 2005.

But a Congressional Research Service report noted that Congress subsequently passed more Katrina funding in a bill in December of 2005 and then another bill in 2006, two more bills in 2007, two in 2008 and another in 2010 – all as part of other disaster-relief legislation which addressed events from Midwest flooding to California wildfires to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund includes:

• Individual assistance for displaced people, crisis counseling and other aid.

• Public assistance money to help cities and towns pay for removing debris and for rebuilding hospitals, other public buildings, roads and utilities.

• Hazard mitigation funds to lessen the impact of future catastrophes.

Frustration was still running high in Congress on Friday even though the Sandy relief bill passed easily – many thought it was a little too late, with the bulk of aid not up for a vote for two more weeks. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., discusses.

New York still waiting for Irene aid
Member of Congress complain about the time it takes federal relief to arrive. At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in early December, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district was devastated by Sandy, said that “FEMA reimbursement is slow and cumbersome. In fact, New York still is waiting for payment for Hurricane Irene (from August of 2011). And I’m sure many of my colleagues have had similar experiences in their states.”

Submitting written testimony at that hearing was Kevin Davis, the director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “As any community recovers from disaster, we are looking for funding for work that is indisputably eligible for federal assistance,” Davis said in his testimony. “The fact that we are looking for it more than seven years later is a powerful testament to the inefficiencies within the bureaucracy of disaster assistance delivery.”

NBC's Anne Thompson visits a couple hit hard by Hurricane Sandy who vent frustration over insurance, the government and FEMA. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

FEMA’s approach, especially in the grants to states and local government for rebuilding, “is focused on a time-consuming, micro-analysis of damaged facilities, door knob-by-door knob, desk-by-desk, ceiling tile-by-ceiling tile.” Davis added that the delays are “compounded in a long recovery by the constant turnover of staff and the lack of qualified personnel.”

He noted that in one case the state tangled with FEMA over damage to Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The dispute finally went to an arbitration process created under the 2009 Recovery Act and the state was awarded $475 million to replace the hospital. Construction began on a new facility in February of 2012.

Where Gov. Christie will be five years from now is anyone’s guess -- but based on Louisiana’s experience, it seems quite possible that some Sandy funds will still be being administered in his state in 2018.