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Congress passes $50.5 billion Sandy aid bill

Updated 3:41 pm, Tuesday, January 29, 2013



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Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON -- Three months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged coastal areas in much of the Northeast, Congress on Monday sent a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for storm victims to President Barack Obama for his signature.

"I commend Congress for giving families and businesses the help they deserve, and I will sign this bill into law as soon as it hits my desk," Obama said in a statement late Monday.

Despite opposition from conservatives who say they are concerned about adding billions of dollars more to the nation's debt, the Senate cleared the long-delayed bill, 62-36, after House Republicans had stripped it earlier this month of spending unrelated to disasters. All 36 votes against the bill were from Republican senators.

"This is a huge relief," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noting the vote came 91 days after Sandy struck.

The House passed the bill two weeks ago. Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast.

Sandy roared up the East Coast and is blamed for more than 130 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in property damage, particularly in New York and New Jersey. The measure is aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild.

The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community development block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-13. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.

More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund for providing shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.

Daniel Warzoha, Greenwich's emergency management director, gave high marks to the proposed command structure for the recovery fund. He is poised to serve on its executive board, as the Region 1 planning team chairman for the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Each of the state's five regions will have representation on the board, which will determine how the money in the fund is disbursed. Region 1 covers the southwestern portion of Fairfield County.

"So it's fair and equitable across the state when you look at it from a local and regional level," Warzoha said.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Republicans weren't seeking "to undermine" help for Sandy victims, but instead were trying to make sure that the money was actually being spent on emergency needs.

Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well over 100,000 flood insurance claims related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion that Obama requested in December.

The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a "fiscal cliff" deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring some $24 billion in spending cuts to defense and domestic programs.

The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28.

Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor.

GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One would have transferred $1 billion for training Iraqi policemen to instead be used to bolster security at U.S. diplomatic missions.

Also deleted were $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan, and another $150 million for fisheries disasters that states such as Alaska and Mississippi could have shared.

After all the cost-cutting, 179 House Republicans still voted against the disaster aid package with only 49 favoring it. GOP leaders had to rely on yes votes from 192 Democrats to pass it.

As of Monday, FEMA said it spent $3.3 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from the storm.

Staff writer Neil Vigdor contributed to this story.