Editorial

Editorial: Divide up Sandy aid wisely and without delay

Illustration by William Brown

Illustration by William Brown

Tomorrow, 91 days after superstorm Sandy devastated parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the Senate is expected to pass a $50.7-billion federal aid bill -- the last big step in a disgracefully drawn-out dance.

The region needed immediate help, but Congress -- especially the House of Representatives -- took its own sweet time. Residents of the tristate region may now be forgiven for feeling a touch of anger mixed with their gratitude.

So what comes next?


PHOTOS: LI damage | Then and now | Aerial views
VIDEOS: Recovery still in progress | Desperate for buyout
DATA: Federal aid to victims | Storm damage | Infrastructure proposals | LI storm damage | How LI reps voted on Sandy funding
MORE: Year after Sandy interactive | Complete coverage


Here's what not to expect: trainloads of money roaring up the East Coast the instant President Barack Obama signs the bill into law.

Given the bureaucratic complexity of turning this money into fast assistance -- for Long Island, Staten Island, the Rockaways and lower Manhattan, to name just a few hard-hit places -- the first challenge for New York State will be to avoid strangulation by red tape.

Of the $50.7 billion in federal money due for passage on Monday, New York should get about $30 billion.

How complicated is Albany's task?

The first thing to know is that the money will not slide smoothly to New York in a lump sum. Instead, it will be allocated to 35 state agencies by way of programs in 18 separate federal agencies. Each federal program, of course, has its own specific thicket of regulations, rules and timetables.

For example:

Money will come to the state from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for distribution as block grants to localities for restoration of infrastructure and housing, along with other forms of disaster relief.

Money will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for certain storm-related costs incurred by public agencies and individuals. FEMA will also provide money to the state for loans to local governments whose operating budgets Sandy ruined.

Money will come from the Federal Transit Administration to offset some of Sandy's damage to regional mass transit.

Money and expertise will come from the Army Corps of Engineers for coastal restoration projects in progress and to explore new ways to reduce damage from storms and flooding.

Smartly, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is determined to get ahead of the game by drawing up a blueprint for the distribution of the Sandy aid. His top aides are taking it to Washington this week as a way to streamline the process and ensure that all federal requirements are met. The feds would be wise to buy in to this comprehensive approach.

Cuomo's strategy is highly promising. It's both top-down and bottom-up. His goal is to move the process briskly along at the top while ensuring that towns and villages buy in at the bottom.

The feds and the state must execute with precision, making sure localities get the money they need without delay. And it falls to the localities to suggest smart, comprehensive, innovative plans and see them through to completion.

 

The greatest pitfall? Lurking in the shadows are countless -- maybe infinite -- ways for a project of this size to go awry. Maybe a federal agency abruptly changes its mind about the parameters of a program. Maybe the secretary of a federal agency suddenly rethinks a promised allocation. Maybe something crucial gets lost in the translation as a program makes its way from Washington to Albany to Long Island. Maybe a town or village drops the ball.

Bear in mind that reconstruction of the World Trade Center site after 9/11 -- one of the world's most complex projects -- involves just two states, $20 billion in federal money, a 16-acre tract, and negotiations among a relatively tiny roster of public and private partners.

This project is bigger.

It will require all the intelligence and skill we can muster. Then we'll need a huge amount of luck.

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