$60B Sandy Relief Bill Advances in Senate

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Senate Democrats said Friday they have enough votes to approve a more than $60 billion Sandy relief bill, overcoming objections that it includes too many pet projects unrelated to the storm.

“Today's votes puts us on a certain path towards providing the relief needed to help our families recover and rebuild,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said in a statement. “We will pass this package next week and House Republicans have a moral obligation to come back to Washington and get this important work done."

The bill survived a filibuster threat, but the actual vote isn’t expected to come until Dec. 27, when amendments may change the actual size of the bill. If it passes, the legislation will head to the House of Representatives for its approval.

Among the highlights are:

  • $11 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster relief,
  • $10 billion towards the National Flood Insurance Program, which has seen its coffers emptied by frequent disasters, and
  • $11 billion in aid for public transportation systems in the region.

The specific breakdown of how much the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NJ Transit and other agencies would receive will be determined later. About half of the amount would go towards repairing storm damage and the other half towards making transit networks more resilient.

All told, about $13 billion of the bill’s total will go towards mitigation, but watchdog groups say it still came short of its potential.

“The problem that happens a lot of time with disasters is that naturally we want to rebuild and get going without knowing what is the best way to go about it,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “And inevitably we end up putting people right back where they were using some of the same things, and when we have proof positive these are vulnerable areas.”

According to Ellis’s analysis, for example, the Senate bill calls on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a 120-day study of whether its storm-control measures, like dunes, worked effectively during Sandy. But the bill doesn’t require the Corps to wait for the results of that study before deciding which projects to rebuild. A spokesman said the Corps doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers had praise for many parts of the bill, but noted that of the $17 billion directed towards damaged businesses, homes and infrastructure that weren’t insured, just $2 billion is specifically for mitigation activities.

“We believe that mitigation of losses from future storms should be incorporated into all of the recovery activities,” the association said in a letter to Congressional leaders.

But supporters said the package would provide money for studies on long-term solutions, and that one of the Republican alternatives—a $24 billion plan by Indiana Senator Dan Coats—would not provide any mitigation at all.