Municipalities throughout the region are looking for answers about how to deal with the lasting impact of superstorm Sandy.
State Sen. Robert Singer and Assemblyman Sean Kean (both R-30) provided an opportunity Thursday night for residents to hear directly from relevant agencies at a special hearing attended by local officials at the Wall Municipal Complex.
Representatives from FEMA, the Department of Banking and Insurance, the Small Business Administration and others answered questions on topics ranging from how shore towns can rebuild their boardwalks to how more inland towns can afford to clear tons of trees and debris from their roadways.
"We really had a concentrated few towns that were impacted to the level where they need to avail themselves of all these services and information," Kean said. "We really had everything we needed to have here."
Both members of the legislative delegation agreed that they learned new information that can help their constituents especially when it comes to the Small Business Administration (SBA). Representatives from the administration said residents should know that if they have damage to their homes the SBA can provide loans to help them pay for repairs while they wait for their insurance companies.
There was also information about what residents can do if they suspect contractors of being fraudulent and the Department of Banking and Insurance on how residents can get additional help from the government.
Singer said whether it is residents, small business owners or municipalities it is important for people to seek as much help as is available to them during what he called a "long haul." He added, "It's going to get ugly because the longer it goes and people don't get answers it's going to be tough."
The forum also provided an opportunity for those in attendance to vent their frustrations, particularly with JCP&L. Kean said the communication with the utility was a definite problem during Sandy and something the Legislature will be tackling among other problems.
"It's not just about JCP&L and holding their feet to the fire to prevent this from happening in the future," he said. "This is a situation where we're going to have multiple aspects. A situation where things are going to have to be dealt with in a proactive manner going forward."
Whatever their situation, Singer said it was important for the people to know that the state is behind them going forward.
Singer said officials are now being forced to look at how best to rebuild or even if to rebuild in some areas and how that work will be paid for. "But we don't want to over-regulate. What we're asking is how do we help people out and how do we get things back on."
Mayor Robert Walsh of Howell said he was encouraged by what he heard at the meeting but said the work is only just beginning in his town and others. "We have to stay on it," he said. "If we're not out in front, government has a way of of forgetting. This is just too important. A lot of the things we're talking about now should have been dealt with a long time ago."
Howell is one of the towns still working to clear their streets of debris from the storm. Walsh said it was good news when they were told that FEMA would reimburse costs from hiring other contractors beyond the ones the federal government had signed up. "We are looking for a much quicker solution that is much more cost effective."
The mayor said they are currently working with an existing contractor to clear the debris and are also working to bring a second company in to help with the efforts. "We're going to do it the way FEMA has told us we have to do it in order to be reimbursed by FEMA," he said. "It has to be done as soon as possible. We can't afford to have the roads like this and have a major snowstorm."
The hearing was held the same day Singer introduced a trio of bills aimed to help the state's recovery after the recent storms. The first directs the state's Board of Public Utilities to look at best practices of other states and how they respond to disaster situations to apply to New Jersey.
A second bill would allow municipalities, nonprofits and businesses to get grants from the BPU or low interest loans for generators and also works with the state's OEM to work on protocols for installing the generators.
Lastly, the third bill would require the utilities to repair or install street lights within 72 hours of being notified by the municipalities or face a $50 fine per day.
Singer said the bills are not the final solutions, but are a start. "It gets the conversation in there," he said.
In a press release prior to the meeting the senator said the bills aimed to have everyone working together in order to avoid a repeat of the post-Sandy situation. "The legislation brings vital accountability to public utility companies and also mitigates tremendous pressure on them to immediately restore utilities to millions of customers by encouraging public and private entities to be prepared with backup power generators."