ALBANY -- The federal Housing and Urban Development agency approved $1.73 billion in housing and economic development aid Friday to help rebuild New York communities heavily damaged by superstorm Sandy.
About half the money -- $838 million -- will go toward rebuilding homes, $415 million will go to rebuilding small businesses, and $396 million to implement long-term storm resiliency measures. These funds are meant to help meet recovery needs not otherwise covered by other federal aid or private insurance. The housing money includes $171 million to buy homes in low-lying areas -- if residents want to relocate, though officials said just two neighborhoods in Staten Island have so far expressed interest in buyouts.
"America is not a country that leaves communities on their own to rebuild," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said at a State Capitol news conference with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
He noted that storm-damaged homes in some areas must be rebuilt 1 foot above current flood levels. "We want to make sure we're not building to [face] today's risks but risks in the future," Donovan said.
The state action plan approved by HUD includes the most comprehensive accounting to date of Sandy's devastation, estimating the storm caused $6.7 billion in damages to 58,124 homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Long Island's South Shore is home to all 10 of the state's hardest-hit communities, including Long Beach, and Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Babylon and Islip towns.
The HUD package announced Friday is targeted for Long Island and lower Hudson Valley communities. New York City is expected to receive a separate allocation of around $1.75 billion. The HUD grants are just one part of a federal aid package that will eventually drive more than $30 billion to New York State. Officials said HUD's approval will help residents who have been waiting for months.
Nassau is getting more HUD money -- $959 million, up from $888 million in the initial plan -- and Suffolk is getting slightly less: $277 million, down from $282 million in the initial plan.
"Today, for the first time, money can actually be made available to the homeowner and the small business owner," said Schumer. He noted that the HUD money has fewer restrictions than federal emergency aid -- it can be used for condos and co-ops, and for mold removal, for example, he said.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who attended the news conference, said about 7,500 Nassau homeowners and 600 business owners already have "preregistered" for the HUD aid. He said there are still "thousands" of Nassau residents who either can't live in their homes or are living in "not fully repaired homes."
Long Island communities are eligible for almost half of the $396 million earmarked for long-term fortification measures, which Mangano said would be used to "restore our beaches, restore our bulkheads and restore our boardwalks" among other things.
Mangano said fewer than a dozen people have inquired about money to relocate rather than rebuild.
Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, who represented Suffolk County at the event, said Friday he was opening an office in Town Hall Annex to assist residents with the aid process. He said many residents are frustrated at the slow pace but, like every other official at the news conference, he blamed the Republican-controlled House for waiting nearly three months before approving a Sandy recovery package.
"This should have been done weeks ago, but that's the way the process works," Schaffer said.
Money is also available to upstate communities hit by tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. Communities will have to submit plans for the long-term aid; Cuomo said he'd hold a conference in June to kick off the planning process.
With Joe Ryan