• Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) praised disaster-funding reforms as implemented by states hit by Superstorm Sandy. New Jersey removed debris at $19 per cubic yard. Long Island, N.Y., spent $129 per yard.

    Credit: Frank Aiello Studios

    Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) praised disaster-funding reforms as implemented by states hit by Superstorm Sandy. New Jersey removed debris at $19 per cubic yard. Long Island, N.Y., spent $129 per yard.

Two pieces of good news in the wake of last fall’s Superstorm Sandy:

  • $11.5 billion of the $50.5 billion Disaster Relief Appropriations Act President Obama signed on Jan. 29 can go to any state, not just those directly affected by Sandy.
  • Two key reimbursement programs have been reformed so cities and counties can expedite recovery efforts.

Spokesman Dan Watson says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would have soon run out of funds without the $11.5 billion infusion, slowing rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and other recent non-Sandy disaster sites.

“There are no restrictions on which states can receive the money for which disasters,” confirms Rob Blumenthal, spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Another bill, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 219), the president signed the same day expands how cities and counties may spend debris removal and hazard mitigation monies. The reforms were included in H.R. 2903, a bill the House passed in the last session (See: http://go.hw.net/PW-Reimbursement) but never taken up by the Senate and reintroduced this year by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) as H.R. 219.

The law reauthorizes an expired pilot program that let cities and counties use FEMA public assistance funds to pay public works employees instead of hiring outside contractors to remove debris. In addition to saving money, it eliminates time spent to meet competitive bidding requirements. A February 2011 Department of Homeland Security report, http://go.hw.net/DebrisRemoval, found that some contractors game the debris removal system, increasing costs for both localities and the federal government.

President Obama authorized a 30-day extension of that pilot program in Sandy-affected states post-Sandy. Debris removal and other public assistance grants reimburse a minimum of 75% of the costs for eligible work: pickup and disposal of vegetative, mud, and other debris on public property.

The law also allows local governments to:

  • keep income from debris recycling without offsetting their grant amounts;
  • receive grants upfront based on fixed estimates of the cost of debris removal rather than after submitting a bill, provided the department agrees to “be responsible for any actual costs that exceed the estimate”;
  • claim a higher federal percentage for the grant based on the time it actually takes to remove debris.

Stephen Barlas is a Washington D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.