Officials stunned by $33 billion damage estimate

An insurance adjuster surveys a destroyed property on An insurance adjuster surveys a destroyed property on River Road in Stony Point. He declined to give his name or the company he works for but said, "This reminds me of after [Hurricane] Katrina." (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "staggering" $33 billion estimate on the cost of Hurricane Sandy has left many officials in the Hudson Valley wondering how they are going to cope with their share of the bill.

At a Manhattan news conference Thursday afternoon, Cuomo spoke of $33 billion in damages and economic losses in New York State alone, suggesting that the hurricane had inflicted an additional $17 billion in losses in other areas of the Northeast.

Cuomo signaled that New York is not in a position to deal with losses of that magnitude.

"That is a staggering number, especially with the financial situation we've been in," the governor said.

He said that the multibillion-dollar budget gaps he has bridged with lawmakers in Albany in recent years pale in comparison to Sandy's destruction.

"That was a tremendous undertaking to balance the budget," he said. "The $33 billion is a lot of money, even for a state government, a federal government."

The governor and members of New York's congressional delegation have requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburse the state for 100 percent of the storm-related costs and losses - more than the 75 percent that is customarily provided by the agency. It's not clear whether his request will be granted.

A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment on the request.

Empire State lawmakers are now lobbying the White House and congressional leaders to authorize payments at the 100 percent level.

"This is what I'm working on now," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) at the opening of FEMA's disaster recovery center in White Plains on Thursday afternoon. 

FEMA has agreed to pay 100 percent of costs related to emergency power for hospitals and similar facilities, as well as those related to emergency repairs on roads and mass transportation.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has said that county government has incurred at least $100 million in damages and other costs relating to Hurricane Sandy, such as overtime for emergency responders. The county-owned Rye Playland amusement park alone had around $12 million in damage, according to Astorino.

Astorino's director of communications, Ned McCormack, said that the county likely will need to cover around 12.5 percent of the damages after it receives both FEMA aid and state disaster funding.

The county now faces an $86 million shortfall in next year's budget -- before storm costs are taken into account. Astorino has the existing budget gap could necessitate as many as 800 layoffs if unions don't make concessions on health care premiums.

The unexpected bill from Sandy shows why it's important that the county not raid its reserve funds to balance budgets, McCormack said. Without a reserve fund, the county would now have a daunting cash flow problem, McCormack suggested.

"This is why you have a reserve fund and you don't want a reserve fund at its lowest level," he said.

The use of reserve funds has been an issue in budget discussions between Astorino and the county Legislature.

The county has yet to apply for FEMA funding, Astorino said, speaking at the FEMA center in White Plains. The county is now waiting for municipalities to tally up their costs from Sandy, a process that might take awhile.

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson said he has been too busy dealing with the storm to fully calculate how much it is going to cost the city.

"We've had our DPW functioning on overtime to clear up obstacles and coordinate with Con Ed," Bramson said. "We've had our Police Department out on overtime in order to monitor gas stations and step up patrols of neighborhoods without power. We've had considerable damage on our waterfront parks. We've had our emergency operations center operating."

Rockland County is still tabulating costs, said Ron Levine, a spokesman for County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef.

"We don't have a finite number yet," Levine said. "We just know the devastation was very, very serious and, I think, as the numbers come, obviously they'll be record numbers. We don't use billions yet, but certainly millions."

Call to "harden" power and transit infrastructure

Cuomo said yesterday that the storm damage will require not mere repair but "hardening" of power and transit infrastructure to avoid a repeat of the damage.

Sandy struck Oct. 29, leaving 100 dead in 10 states. Mass transit systems and tunnels fell victim to flooding from the storm's tidal surges. Gasoline supplies were disrupted by widespread power outages and delays in delivering fuel. Hundreds of thousands are still without power and struggling to find gasoline.

"Our transportation system is vulnerable. Our fuel delivery system is vulnerable," Cuomo said at the Thursday news conference, describing those resources as the "circulatory system" of the region.

"Look how fast you can shut down the region, just by shutting down the pumps," the governor said.

On Thursday, the continuing problems with gasoline supplies prompted officials in New York City to order rationing of gasoline through an odd-even system. On odd dates, only those with license plates ending in an odd number or letter will be able to purchase gasoline in the city and on Long Island. On even dates, only those with plates ending in an even letter or numeral will be able to buy gas.

The system goes into effect early Friday morning.

On Friday, both tubes of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, an East River crossing flooded by the storm, will reopen to all traffic at 6 a.m., Cuomo said. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (aka Brooklyn Battery Tunnel), however, will remain closed indefinitely.

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