Philadelphia Inquirer: EDITORIAL: Delay in Sandy aid comes with better ideas
A $51 billion aid package expected to be voted on in the Senate Tuesday contains smart provisions that should make recovery from Superstorm Sandy more logical and humane than what occurred after Katrina.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) used her state's experience after Katrina to add policy changes for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will help when FEMA rebuilds parts of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut hit hard by Sandy in October.
FEMA now requires buildings to be restored to their original condition, which sounds nice until you realize it means a plywood and tar fish shack would be replaced with another plywood and tar fish shack. Landrieu would allow FEMA to raise standards so new buildings are more resilient.
That makes sense. Climate scientists warn that future storms will be more frequent and severe.
FEMA also only reimburses communities after they finish repairing roads, schools, and other infrastructure. That often means towns must borrow funds to rebuild. Landrieu's bill instead would allow some advance federal funding, so work could begin sooner and be planned better.
Early funding for planning and designing allows towns to assess what they really need to replace. New Orleans, for example, wound up rebuilding every school after Katrina even though it only needed about two-thirds of them.
To save more time and money, the legislation would allow FEMA to pay local governments to remove debris, freeing the agency from a requirement that it only reimburse private contractors. And rather than shipping $80,000 trailers to house storm victims, FEMA will be able to use funds to pay for apartment rentals.
The Christie administration has already persuaded FEMA to let displaced persons use housing funds to cover apartment security deposits, so families can move out of motels. Such changes help stabilize families and save money that would otherwise be wasted on uncomfortable, unsightly, and depreciating trailers. Another good provision allows families to use storm aid for child care.
Currently, disagreements over storm aid to homeowners and businesses are resolved through appeals to FEMA. But the Landrieu legislation would allow third-party arbitrators to settle future disputes, which should make the process more fair.
These smart changes to how FEMA operates will put the Sandy states on solid ground to reach successful recoveries that start with sound planning and include modern building technologies that will help their communities weather future superstorms that come roaring up the coast.