Connecticut lags behind in use of Sandy relief dollars

May 30, 2013

More than six months have passed since Superstorm Sandy devastated the tri-state region and many people are still struggling. Money from the congressional Sandy relief bill is already helping those in New York and New Jersey. But Connecticut lags behind.

In Fairfield Beach, you can hear the constant whir of construction. Some recently raised homes look like they’re standing on long stilts 12 or 14 feet above ground. Many others are marked for demolition or are already empty lots.

On some streets, things look normal, until --

Thousands of homes here flooded during Sandy, and according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nearly 900 of them were damaged so badly that money from FEMA wouldn’t cover the cost of repairs. And many people are still waiting for money and fighting with their insurance companies.

“People have to get back in their houses. I know of at least one household that’s staying at the Fairfield Motor Inn," Barnhart said.

This is where money from Congress comes in. Congress passed a $50 billion Sandy supplemental relief bill back in January. So far, the federal government has said it will give at least $72 million of that to Connecticut. It’s actually a small amount, but every bit counts.

"We are waiting on that money.  We had significant structural homes to a lot of homes and a lot of businesses. We definitely got slammed," says state representative Diana Urban, of North Stonington.

But so far, even though the money was announced four months ago, it’s not available yet. The state of Connecticut still needs to decide how to spend it. So far, Governor Dannel Malloy’s office has said it expects to use around $56 million to help owners of single and multi-family homes repair flood damage and raise their homes if they have to. But it still needs to submit what’s called an Action Plan to the federal government for approval.

Urban says she doesn’t understand why it’s taken so long.

“The word action, that kind of denotes to me, like, action. So, why don’t we call it like a ‘maybe we’re going to get here in a little while plan?’”

The money will go through the state’s recently-created Department of Housing. The department's head, Evonne Klein, says her agency is on schedule.

“We’re on time, to get done what we need to get done, on behalf of the Citizens of Connecticut."

She expects homeowners to be able to apply for assistance sometime this summer.

State officials say they’ll be hiring temporary employees to help administer the money but haven’t posted any job notices yet. Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey submitted their action plans months ago, and thousands of homeowners there have already applied for some of that federal money. That’s frustrating for Fairfield town official Mark Barnhart.

“Obviously, we seem to be a little bit behind the curve up here. And I don’t know why that is.”

The Governor and the legislature have also been dealing with some other pressing issues in the state, like gun control and now the budget deficit and spending cap. But representative Diana Urban says the state can’t afford to ignore disaster relief. It’s easy to talk about it right after a big storm. Then the sense of urgency quickly subsides.

“When it first happens, everybody’s so supportive, and we declared an emergency, FEMA’s coming in, here we come to save the day, and then everything calms down and the bureaucracy takes over.”

And just as that may be happening, another hurricane season is about to begin.