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Sandy Recovery Efforts Provide Multiple Challenges

Mon February 04, 2013 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

The House and Senate have passed, and President Obama has signed into law, a $50.5-billion emergency relief bill to help restore areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Obama signed the Sandy relief bill into law on Jan. 29, as soon as it hit his desk.

The legislation assists storm victims, providing funds for rebuilding homes and businesses. It also helps restore public transportation, helps states, counties and municipalities meet storm-related needs, and opens the way for new rebuilding contracts.

The storm, which made landfall Oct. 29 five mi. southwest of Atlantic City, N.J., caused an estimated $65 billion to $80 billion in damages, with the worst devastation to homes in New Jersey and New York. Sandy, which took 157 lives, was the second-worst storm in U.S. history, with damages exceeded only by Hurricane Katrina, where damages totaled $108 billion.

Damages have been estimated at $29.4 billion in New Jersey and $41.9 billion in New York, including about $19 billion in Manhattan.

Severe Flooding

Though wind gusts hit 90 mph, flooding from the storm caused the most damage, with ocean water merging with bays in many areas. An initial priority for contractors is restoring homes whose owners had purchased flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. Congress approved $9.7 billion on Jan. 3 to replenish this program’s funding, which had only $3.8 billion available to meet more than 140,000 claims nationwide.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates the program, has estimated that flood claims could total as high as $12 billion. FEMA provided public assistance funding to states hit by the storm. This included paying for up to 75 percent for debris removal and allotting funds to county and local governments to defray removal costs. (Under a separate program of "individual assistance," it also provided funding to individuals and households.)

Thousands of homes in the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York suffered four or five feet of water from the surge as ocean water converged with water from bays. Many of these homes have been condemned. Others may have to be raised to 10 to 15 ft. above mean high-low water level under revised flood-plain designations, which include wind velocity as well as flooding.

New Jersey, where more than 45 percent of residents live in flood-prone areas, already requires buildings to be elevated at least 1 ft. above federal mandates. Costs of non-compliance include greatly increased flood insurance premiums, plus fines.

Construction Challenge

Reconstruction challenges government and industry. Almost 350,000 homes were destroyed in New Jersey alone, where 116,000 people were evacuated or displaced and nearly 7 million people lost power. Storm surges also destroyed an estimated 305,000 homes in New York State, including thousands in Staten Island, Queens and Long Island. Fire resulting from the storm destroyed more than 100 homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens.

Sandy created a big demand for contractors and even formerly unemployed construction workers, spurring activity, which had been almost dormant since the collapse of the housing market.

Equipment needs have been almost overwhelming. Work crews have needed power generators, forklifts, skid steers, trucks and other equipment. Loss of power initially hampered internet communications to meet these needs.

The Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) in Oak Brook, Ill., reported in an article that Modern Group received 180 forklifts from other dealers to help meet the emergency, and had sold two million portable power units in just one week, while Hoffman Equipment attributed 35 to 40 percent of its rentals to storm-cleanup needs.

The AED article said demolition work, with its attendant equipment needs, could last from six months to a year.

Some homeowners have called in bulldozers on their own for demolition work. After city inspectors in New York identify a Sandy-damaged structure as unsafe, and the owner signs a written consent form, the city will demolish the structure without charge.

Congress Approves Funding

The emergency relief measure was approved by a vote of 241 to 180 in the House on Jan. 15 and 62 to 36 in the Senate on Jan. 28. It includes $16 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) community development fund whose block grants would give towns flexibility in pursuing priority projects. About $12.1 billion of that will be shared among Sandy victims and victims of other federally declared disasters in 2011 to 2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.

The block grants will include support for damage not covered by FEMA, the Small Business Administration or insurance; federal grants for rebuilding destroyed homes and repairing damage; buying out or elevating homes; and rebuilding various types of infrastructure like schools, hospitals and power.

Another $11.5 billion is for disaster relief through FEMA. This includes shelters and the cost of having restored power. An additional $10.9 billion is for repairing public transit systems in New York and New Jersey, and making them more resistant to future storms.

The Army Corps of Engineers would receive $5.35 billion for beach replenishment, projects to protect against future storms and for improved flood control. Another $2 billion would go to highways. Other programs include $118 million to Amtrak for repairs and for a new system of redundancy against tunnel flooding. Amtrak did not receive a requested $188 million for expansion, including new long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in New York.

"Funding gives agencies and states a handle on how much money they will have, speeding the process of awarding contracts," said Christian A. Klein, AED’s vice president of government affairs and Washington counsel.

The measure would change the way the federal government reimburses localities for disaster expenses by offering them fixed grants based on professionally prepared cost estimates. Localities would be offered more flexibility in spending money but also would be responsible for cost overruns.

The Congressional Budget Office said most of the new funding won’t be spent before 2015. It said $3.6 billion would be spent this year and $11.3 billion next year.

Construction Challenge

Reconstruction from Sandy’s devastation challenges individual homeowners, state and local government emergency management departments, the Army Corps of Engineers, hundreds of contractors and their employees, and thousands of construction workers previously unemployed.

The work has included removing as much as one million cu. yds. of sand from basements and streets, replenishing beaches, removing rotting drywall, splintered wood and studs and other materials from homes inundated by 10 or more ft. of water, power-sawing trees which had fallen across highways, replacing signs and streetlights, and removing all sorts of debris from streets and properties. Much of this work is being funded by state Office of Emergency Management departments.

Boardwalks are being reconstructed in resorts like Belmar, N.J., Seaside Heights, N.J., and the Rockaways in New York.

In Manhattan, contractors have been mitigating floor damage from the East River, whose storm surge was 13.88 ft. above normal high tides, flooding seven subway tunnels — the worst disaster in the history of the New York subway system. Below the ground level of apartment buildings and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, contractors pumped out contaminated water from parking levels where flooded cars leaked oil and gas. They removed the water in large tanker-trucks since it was too contaminated to be emptied into nearby rivers. The lower floors of many of these buildings are being reconstructed to better resist flooding.

Roads Now Opened

State departments of transportation in New Jersey and New York — the states hardest hit by Sandy — leapt into emergency disaster relief as the storm hit. Repairing infrastructure was a priority. FEMA regulations specified that communities should complete such repairs before they could be reimbursed for other work.

"We started a major recovery effort within days," said Tim Greeley, a spokesperson of the New Jersey DOT in Trenton, N.J. "We have a line item for emergency-type work in the capital program for every fiscal year. Thus all our Sandy-recovery work was done on an emergency basis by on-call contractors. When we use such state funding, we will in turn request the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and FEMA to recoup that money.

"The main area of damage was state Route 35 in Ocean County. Sand was piled 10 feet high at some places on this road. Many people have seen the picture of Mantoloking, where the highway was completely washed out. We completely rebuilt the highway there, at the intersection with the Mantoloking Bridge. Our area of focus was the 12 miles between Point Pleasant Beach and the entrance to Island Beach State Park. This was a major cleanup effort which began right after the storm and concluded 10 weeks later. We removed dumptruck after dumptruck of sand and debris. We also repaired more than 80 sinkholes between Bayhead and Seaside Heights. Properties along Routes 35 and 36, from Sandy Hook to Seaside Heights, sustained catastrophic damage."

NJDOT or its contractors also replaced or repaired 1,250 traffic signals, replaced 1,100 traffic signs, plugged two 100-ft.-wide breeches between Point Pleasant and Mantoloking, removed 27 structures and 114 cars or boats from roads, and removed 4,425 truckloads of debris from state and local roads.

The main contractors for the highway cleanup work in New Jersey were I.E.W., Ferreira, and Schifano.

Backhoes and other equipment also cleared Route 37 from Toms River to Seaside Heights and Route 72 to Long Beach Island. DOT’s in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and other northeastern states also had to inspect all shore-area bridges for structural damage. (Inspectors discovered some erosion around bridge piers of Routes 37 and 72 in Jersey, and have filled in the areas with sand and rock. They also found that the electrical system for the Shark River drawbridge in Monmouth County was damaged, and closed this bridge for 45 days of repair.)

The New York DOT has rebuilt sections of the 16-mi.-long Ocean Parkway near Jones Beach, and has completed repairing damage from the storm surge, which carried sand from the dunes. Reconstruction of the four-lane divided highway was a joint venture of Bove Construction, Kelly Construction and John P. Piccone Construction.

The New York subway system needs an estimated $4.8 billion to recover from the superstorm.

At least 10,800 truckloads of debris have been hauled from the Metropolitan New York area to landfills in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Beaches are meanwhile being replenished with sand which has been scrupulously cleaned in sifters supplied by sand from front end loaders. The Army Corps of Engineers said crews had filtered 94,000 cu. yds. of sand in the six weeks before New Year’s Day. This is enough to fill a football field to a depth of 44 ft.

Major Market

"It looks like a lot of business [from Sandy] regionally in the New Jersey/New York area," said Daniel Fisher, senior director, government affairs and associate counsel at AED’s Washington, D.C., office. "Republicans believe the funding should have immediate impact; Democrats are also focusing on preventing similar disasters in the future."

Brian Deery, senior director of the Highway and Transportation Division, Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Washington, sees "a substantial market for contractors," with the funding coming in three stages and boosting construction activity in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

"A lot of energy was spent to fix roads or bridges which were impassable," he said. "There’s also a lot of talk [n Congress] about preventing this from happening in the future through such steps as flood gates and flood walls. Contracts for this have not been let. We would expect contracts in six to eight months if they decide on such work. New York has been talking about this for years; it would be a huge financial commitment."

Most of the response in recovering from Sandy has been coordinated through Offices of Emergency Management (OEM) which provide federal funds from FEMA to aid municipalities, counties and public entities which request help. Working with the governor’s office, the New Jersey OEM, for instance, has provided millions of federal dollars for public assistance (infrastructure repair and public property) and hazard mitigation. The largest grant was $27.8 million to the New Jersey Dept. of Human Services.

Several companies have received contracts from FEMA and other agencies to help manage grants or loans. These include Fluor Corp. and AECOM Technology Corp., which received a total of $64.3 million in Fiscal 2013 contracts to help FEMA manage recovery from Sandy and other disasters.

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