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DISASTERS

Lawmakers echo frustration over slow pace of federal aid to Sandy victims

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie comforts Kerri Berean, 33, a Chapman Street resident, in this Nov. 3, 2012 taken in Little Ferry, N.J. (AP)

In the year since Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, billions of dollars in federal aid have been promised to rebuild communities demolished during the natural disaster.

But the recovery effort for the thousands of Americans hit hardest by Sandy has been slow at best, and the number of people still waiting for federal aid far eclipses those who have gotten what they need to get their lives back on track.

In January, Congress approved a $60 billion aid package which included funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as money for infrastructures and direct aid to victims.

In Washington, D.C., Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sent a letter to Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan demanding to know why getting help to Sandy victims has taken so long.

“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,” he wrote in his Oct. 25-dated letter.

As of Aug. 31, federal agencies had only obligated about $11 billion – a little more than 20 percent, Coburn said.

“Concerns over the pace of the recovery continue to grow and one year later many residents of states affected by Hurricane Sandy continue to wait for help,” Coburn wrote.

In an interview with The Associated Press, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blamed Congress, which took three months to approve a multi-billion relief package for the region and then tacked on an array of rules to prevent the widespread fraud that occurred after Hurricane Katrina.

The result, critics complain, was that thousands of people affected by Sandy are still left waiting for the government to help. Some are still in hotels, waiting on government assistance as well as insurance payouts.

"We've done everything we possibly can, and I think in the immediate aftermath did a very good job," Christie told the AP. "Since then, we've kind of been hostage to two situations, the delay in the aid itself and then what I call the 'Katrina factor,' which is the much more detailed and difficult rules surrounding the distribution of the aid."

In New Jersey, the Oct. 29 storm left 5.5 million without electricity and damaged 360,000 homes and businesses.

It’s not much better in New York.

“According to New York City officials it appears that the process has become lengthier due to federal rules, including delays due to environmental reviews and rebuilding on Native American burial grounds,” Coburn wrote.

Coburn, a noted fiscal hawk on Capitol Hill, added that while he is usually in favor of scaling back federal funds, he found the government’s effort, including lengthy rules and regulations crafted to help victims of Sandy, “troubling and counterproductive.”

Coburn says that while homeowners were placed on waiting lists and worries mounted about the recovery, costly television commercials that were financed by Hurricane Sandy disaster aid were approved with lightning speed.

“In May 2013, I raised concerns regarding around $65 million in disaster aid going towards television commercials in the state of New York and New Jersey,” he said. “This disaster aid was spent on television commercials despite many businesses, homes and lives still suffering from the storm.”

In the past, HUD disaster aid went to pay for commercials following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The ads were aired to promote tourism to the areas as part of the rebuilding process.

Calls to HUD for comment were not immediately returned.