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Editorial: FEMA help in NY crucial to nation's economy

People effected by Superstorm Sandy wait in line

People effected by Superstorm Sandy wait in line outside a FEMA tent in Staten Island, New York. (Nov. 4, 2012) Credit: AP

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put a dollars-and-cents estimate on the financial toll of superstorm Sandy Thursday -- beyond the ghastly price New Yorkers are already paying in pain and suffering and loss of life. Damage in the state, the governor said, could add up to the staggering figure of $33 billion.

The good news is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help individuals and public entities with many of their out-of-pocket expenses. For individuals and households, this includes costs for temporary housing and home repairs not covered by insurance. For public entities, FEMA will reimburse costs for damaged roads, bridges, utilities, public buildings and the like.

But then things get a little sticky. Will FEMA reimburse its customary 75 percent of expenses, the more unusual 90 percent or the rare 100 percent? Cuomo, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York correctly believe FEMA should pay for 100 percent.

Sandy has wreaked destruction and suffering on the metropolitan area -- the nation's largest economic market -- in a way considered unthinkable until early last week. Thousands of New Yorkers have lost their homes, and the region remains in the throes of gasoline shortages and power outages. It is in the national interest for us to get back on our feet as fast as possible.

To its credit, FEMA has agreed to reimburse 100 percent of costs for restoring power and emergency transportation. Now it needs to broaden that policy.

A second hurdle is getting a calculation of damages that everyone can agree on. Unfortunately, this will take time. The Long Island Power Authority has just been reimbursed for costs related to August 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.

Cuomo wants a supplemental appropriation from the federal government as well as the FEMA aid to help with economic loss that's incalculable right now. Supplemental aid would help hard-hit localities cope with loss of revenue because of decreased economic activity. Nassau Comptroller George Maragos says the loss of activity in just the first two weeks since Sandy, combined with the nor'easter, could be $750 million.

New Orleans got supplemental assistance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and New York City after 9/11, so why not us? Schumer and Gillibrand should make this a priority -- along with President Barack Obama.

FEMA says its programs are designed to help meet essential needs and assist individuals and their households as they take the first steps toward recovery. The programs are not meant to return all homes or belongings to their pre-Sandy condition.

That's fine, but the metropolitan area needs big help -- and we need it now. For nearly two weeks, we have been crippled by perhaps the worst natural disaster in state history. Thousands of New Yorkers remain cold and homeless. Hundreds of thousands are struggling to get to work because of gasoline shortages and a damaged public transportation system.

FEMA reimbursements at 100 percent and a strong supplemental appropriation would not just be humane. They would help get New York's economy back to full strength quickly -- and limit damage to the rest of the nation.


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