6 months after Sandy, complaints about recovery pace, costs and future preparedness pile up

Six months after Superstorm Sandy plowed through the Northeast, restoration efforts continue to move forward. New Jersey's Seaside Heights boardwalk is set to reopen Memorial Day, and some of the homes that were destroyed are starting to be rebuilt.

"We've gotten all the things that can be gotten back to normal, back to normal," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) in an interview with New York radio news station 1010 WINS yesterday.

But there is still much to be done: According to the Associated Press, 39,000 of the 161,000 displaced New Jersey families are still waiting to return home, and more than 250 New York households are still stuck in Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded hotel rooms.

And although Christie claims the recovery effort has been slow but sure, complaints about the management of cleanup efforts are coming in at a brisk pace.

A $1.8 billion New Jersey recovery plan that received federal approval yesterday has already been criticized by an environmental group for disregarding sea-level rise. And several local news outlets claim that the bill for hauling debris away from Northeastern communities is, as former New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan would put it, "too damn high."

Are increased future risks accounted for?

Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved $1.8 billion in funding for Christie's post-Sandy recovery plan, called the "Governor's Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Action Plan."

"Priority No. 1 is to get people back in their homes," said Christie in an interview with 1010 WINS shortly before HUD's announcement. The plan includes a homeowner grant program, giving up to $150,000 to people wanting to rebuild or elevate their homes, as well as grants for small businesses affected by the storm, among other measures.

However, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, Jeff Tittel, has dubbed the project an "Inaction Plan," lambasting it for containing too much "fuzzy language" and not enough preparation for the future impacts of climate change.

"Unfortunately, the plan does not include mitigation and adaptation for sea level rise, buyouts for flood out properties, green building or energy efficiency codes, or regional planning and coordination between communities," Tittel said in a statement released yesterday.

"There is no planning for pulling back from environmentally sensitive areas," Tittel added. "The report does not include plans for restoring natural systems and adding dunes along our coast."

The plan does state, "All reconstruction, new construction and rehabilitation must be designed to incorporate principles of sustainability, including water and energy efficiency, resilience, and mitigating the impact of future disasters," and certain rebuilding projects will be required to comply with HUD's Community Planning and Development Green Building Retrofit Checklist.

Brendan Gilfillan of HUD's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force declined to comment on the New Jersey Sierra Club's concerns, but did point out an April 4 HUD announcement that says all federally funded projects related to Sandy recovery must meet a "single uniform flood risk reduction standard."

The announcement states that this standard "takes into account the increased risk the region is facing from extreme weather events, sea level rise and other impacts of climate change" and would require federally funded projects "to account for increased flood risk resulting from a variety of factors by elevating or otherwise flood-proofing to one foot above the elevation recommended by the most recent available federal flood guidance."


Uneven costs for debris removal

Millions of cubic yards of sand and silt landed on the Northeast's roads and waterways during Sandy. For New York City, the cost of removing this debris added up to about $100 per cubic yard, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported yesterday. This task was given to the Army Corps of Engineers, which transported the waste 300 miles via barges and trucks to its final dumping place, a landfill near Waterloo, N.Y., on the opposite side of the state.

All told, the Army Corps has received $177 million to complete the herculean task of removing and relocating the 1 million cubic yards of debris that washed up on New York last October, according to a recent report by The New York Times.

New York's debris removal proved far more expensive than New Jersey's -- the Star-Ledger pegged New York's cost per cubic yard at $100, as compared to the $56 per cubic yard paid in New Jersey -- but that doesn't mean that everyone in the Garden State is happy with how it was done.

Christie opted to sign on AshBritt Environmental, a private contractor specializing in disaster recovery, to remove waste in his state. The company collected 3 million cubic yards of waste from 53 New Jersey towns and charged $150 million for its labors.

A recent inquiry by The Record, a New Jersey newspaper, found that Ocean County, N.J., may have paid more than half a million dollars more than necessary for debris hauling.

In AshBritt's contract with the state, the cost of a single haul increases by 30 percent if the trucker drives more than 16 miles to the final dump site. The Record found that drivers working under AshBritt often recorded trip distances at or just over the 16-mile benchmark -- despite the fact that the total distances between sites was often found to be shorter when driven by a Record reporter or entered into Google Maps. The Record alleges that these extra charges add up to about $512,000.

According to the Star-Ledger, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has vowed to serve as a watchdog over debris removal in the Northeast, saying "we will continue to carefully look at the cost of debris removal over the next few months to ensure taxpayer funds are spent properly."

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