Congress rushed to send $60.4 billion in emergency money to aid Superstorm Sandy victims, saying people's lives depended on getting the full amount out the door as fast as possible — but a year after the storm, the tally shows very little has been spent.
The storm left more than 100 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage along the Northeast coast, making landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, and did the worst of its damage to that state and neighboring New York.
Officials initially pressed for $80 billion in federal aid, but Congress cut that by about a quarter and passed two bills in January to get the money flowing.
But as of Aug. 31, the most recent financial report from the federal Sandy task force shows that only about one-fifth of the money has been obligated and little more than $5 billion, or 11 percent, has been paid out.
On Monday, the administration released a fact sheet saying that in the ensuing two months, another $8.5 billion has been paid out, bringing the total to $13.5 billion.
Federal agencies say they have been trying to push out the money as quickly as possible but that Sandy spending is proceeding at the usual pace for disasters, which means it could take years to account for all of the money Congress has approved.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is the top waste-watcher on Capitol Hill, said that means either Congress acted too quickly to front-load the money or the Obama administration has been too slow in delivering aid.
"It has been nearly 10 months since disaster aid was appropriated and I am troubled by the fact that so little money has reached the people who need it," Mr. Coburn wrote in a letter Friday to Shaun L.S. Donovan, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who is overseeing the federal Sandy task force. "Concerns over the pace of the recovery continued to grow and one year later many residents of states affected by Hurricane Sandy continue to wait for help."
Mr. Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent staffers to the storm-damaged region and said local officials reported that it was hard to get straight answers from the government.
HUD is responsible for a huge portion of the Sandy money. Some $15.2 billion was designated for the department's Community Development Block Grant program. But as of Aug. 31, just $2.1 billion had been obligated and just $135 million had been spent — less than 1 percent of the designated funds.
In February, HUD said, it approved sending the first $5.4 billion. The department did not provide a comment, so it was unclear why the department obligated less than half of the money it said it allotted.
But on Monday, three days after Mr. Coburn's letter prodding Mr. Donovan, HUD announced that it had approved another $5 billion.
"One year later, it's clear these communities continue to be challenged by the sheer scale of this devastating storm, requiring further investment to make certain these needs are met," Mr. Donovan said in a HUD press release.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney vowed that the administration hasn't lost sight of the victims still struggling to find housing or get their businesses up and running.
"I think that we have demonstrated that commitment throughout the past year, and it's an ongoing commitment, and that includes the provision of aid as well as numerous other projects underway as part of the administration's work with the affected states," he said.
Mr. Obama fought to get quick approval of the $60 billion from Congress, but Mr. Coburn and a number of other Republicans balked. They wanted to pass an initial pool of money for emergencies, then dole out most of the money year by year, stacking it up against other priorities in the normal spending process.
Lawmakers from the affected areas balked, and Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey Republican, led the effort to pass the full $60.4 billion: An initial $9.7 billion installment, followed weeks later by another $50.7 billion.
Mr. Frelinghuysen's office didn't respond to requests for comment Monday on the pace of spending, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told The Associated Press this weekend that federal red tape has meant that the distribution of money has been slow.
Some of the Sandy money was controversial from the start. Several federal law enforcement agencies asked for millions of dollars to repair offices or replace vehicles and furniture that they said were damaged during the storm.
As of August, the U.S. Secret Service had spent 51 percent of its $284,983 allotment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had spent 65 percent of its $1.6 million allotment, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had spent 16 percent of its $812,250 allotment.
The Drug Enforcement Administration had spent 47 percent of its $950,000 request to replace vehicles.
The Smithsonian Institution, which reported weather damage at some of its museums, was allotted $1.9 million and has obligated $1.8 million. All of the work will be completed by December, a spokeswoman said.
The slowest big-ticket program was the Agriculture Department's emergency watershed protection program, which was allocated $171 million in the spending bill. As of Aug. 31, just $4.5 million had been allocated and none had been paid out.
Department officials said they always intended for a two-stage process, with the initial money going to emergency needs and the rest reserved for flood plain easements for inland watershed areas prone to flooding.
The officials said they had to give those claiming emergency needs enough time to come forward, and now that the money is on the way, they are turning attention to the other $166 million.
Another slow spender is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was allocated $127 million. As of Aug. 31, it had obligated $18.8 million and spent just $13,637 — about one-hundredth of a percent.
NOAA spokesman David Miller said the agency submitted its spending plans to Congress on time in March, and Capitol Hill gave approval in mid-June.
"Lead times associated with procurement and grant actions, which vary depending on the size and type of the award, can sometimes be significant," he said.
One area where help has been speedy was from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The inspector general for homeland security, the department that oversees FEMA, gave the agency a glowing review, saying it prepared for the storm, managed to overcome resource shortages and staffing problems, and coordinated the immediate federal response well.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.