ALBANY - Victims of major storms over the past two years - Superstorm Sandy and hurricanes Irene and Lee - will soon start seeing government checks to help reopen homes and businesses in what state and federal officials described Friday as a speedy process.
Some of $1.7 billion in federal block grant money will be released soon to repair and rebuild tourist destinations including boardwalks, mostly on Long Island, in time for the summer season. Many of the aid Hudson Valley communities damaged by Sandy and Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier, Catskill and Adirondack communities hard hit by Irene and Lee will have to compete for grants beginning in June. In all, 84 New York communities are eligible for aid.
"Today, we begin a new phase," Cuomo said.
Flood prevention efforts like this are among those that can be done using $3 million the federal government just made available to Essex County, Jay and Keene. Here an excavator operator uses brush to strengthen a riverbank along the East Branch of the AuSable River in Keene Valley on July 30, 2012.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas attended Friday's press conference. He said in an email that the federal funds will let property owners who were approved for buyouts receive 100 percent of the "pre-disaster fair market value" of their homes, rather than the 75 percent originally offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"In addition to this there will be funds of up to $3 million available to Essex County, Jay and Keene for planning and construction to help prevent damage from any future weather disasters that may come our way," Douglas, who chairs the Essex County Board of Supervisors, wrote.
Friday's announcement was billed as a good first step to finally provide the bulk of federal aid to disaster victims, some of whom haven't been able to live in their own homes for months, which officials on Friday blamed mostly on gridlock in Congress.
New York City's plan is still being discussed with federal officials. But U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said Friday in Albany that he expects that plan to be approved in a couple weeks.
Meanwhile, many Long Islanders still living in hotels and sleeping on relatives' couches for months are still waiting to rebuild and, according to Sen. Dean Skelos of Nassau County, deciding whether to do so.
The grants, part of the state's total $35 billion in federal aid, will rebuild communities better and stronger than before they hit by the severe storms, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised.
That promise had been made before to communities ravaged by Irene and Lee.
In Prattsville on Aug. 31, 2011, Cuomo said, "We are going to rebuild better than it was before." But more than a year and a half later, many residents are still trying to rebuild family homes that were twisted to rubble and shops gutted by floods. Most had no flood insurance and many families and hamlets were devastated.
Cuomo explained Friday that federal money ran out before that town and others could fully recover. But now, Sandy, a downstate disaster, helped bring aid anew for those areas. Cuomo said the severity of Sandy last fall, which hit New York and New Jersey the hardest and was recounted for weeks in national media, forced Congress to replenish the federal disaster fund.
That provided unexpected funding to go toward the recovery efforts from Irene and Lee, which slammed parts of upstate within days of each other.
Now, full recovery is "up to the communities," Cuomo said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer says the federal block grant will be especially helpful because state and local governments will have far more flexibility on how it can be disbursed. For example, he said, property owners will now be able to use government aid to fight off mold in their damaged properties that have endured wet and wintry weather for months. The block grant will also cover common areas in condos and co-ops.
Cuomo blamed some of the delay after Sandy hit in October on gridlock in Washington, although he and Schumer praised Republican Rep. Pete King of Long Island for breaking the logjam and getting tens of millions of dollars more in aid for New York.
Cuomo said "there is probably no truer test" of a government than how it reacts to a major disaster.