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Home > Columnists > Alice Park
December 05, 2011

FEMA leaves out Bergen and Passaic Counties in major disaster declaration


Congressman Bill Pascrell wants FEMA aid now for Passaic and Bergen counties. (UPI/Kevin Dietsch)

By ALICE PARK
   News Editor

   Governor Chris Christie sent a letter to Washington in November, asking for federal aid in the wake of October’s freak snowstorm. He requested a major disaster declaration for 11 New Jersey counties, which would provide federal funds for recovery efforts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). On Wednesday, President Obama honored Governor Christie’s request—at least the majority of it—and issued a major disaster declaration for eight of the 11 counties. While help would be on the way for Cape May, Essex, Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Union and Warren counties, Bergen, Passaic and Middlesex would be left in the fiscal cold. Dumbfounded, Bergen County officials investigated and discovered the exclusion was due to a clerical error by the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (NJ OEM).

   Enraged, state senators Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge) demanded state emergency officials to publicly detail how the three counties got left out of the FEMA declaration. Weinberg said, “The snow may have fallen in October, but its impact may lead to a winter of discontent for local official and property taxpayers unless this situation gets straightened out. It’s impossible that the most populous county—where more than ten percent of the state’s residents live and where tens of thousands of residents were left without power for days on end and many roads remained closed long after the storm due to fallen trees—didn’t meet the threshold for FEMA aid. If someone added wrong, then let’s fill in the right numbers and get our towns the help they need. This isn’t the time for pride; this is the time to get it right.”

   According to FEMA’s current regulations, each resident in a county must incur at least $3.39 in damages in order to qualify for federal disaster relief. Bergen County, whose population approximates 900,000, would need to have sustained about $3 million for eligibility. FEMA’s report indicated that Bergen County suffered $5.6 million; however, state emergency officials sent the federal government a figure of $1.2 million.  

   NJ OEM officials could not isolate the miscalculation in the breakdown process, but claimed they would advance efforts for a major disaster declaration. For the time being, the Bergen County Executive Office and NJ OEM do not think an appeal is necessary, as the mistake was clerical on the part of NJ OEM, unlike the cases for Middlesex and Passaic counties, whose costs did not meet FEMA’s “per-capita damage” cost threshold. Passaic County, which has a population of 500,000, needed a threshold of $1.7 million, but only reported $1.5 million. Despite their inability to meet the threshold, NJ OEM plans to evaluate and determine whether there is additional documentation to back an appeal for a declaration.   

   Congressman Steve Rothman (D-Fairlawn) and Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) wrote to FEMA Chief William Craig Fugate, imploring, “We appreciate the President’s approval of our state’s request for major declaration disaster…However, we are extremely concerned that Bergen and Passaic Counties were not included in the initial declaration for public assistance. We understand that review of the damage in these counties is ongoing, and that they may be added to the emergency declaration. We are writing to urge you to extend assistance to Bergen and Passaic Counties as soon as possible…It is clear from the magnitude of the damage in our district that recovery efforts will be beyond the means of state and local budgets.”  

   State Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Woodridge) further proclaimed, “Many of our municipalities had exhausted their yearly storm cleanup budgets before last winter even ended, and have been stretched to find the funds to pay for September’s floods and now October snow. Without aid from FEMA now, they will have no recourse but to raise property taxes to pay for cleanup. Having spoken to numerous local and county officials, there’s no way Bergen County should be left off FEMA’s list. If this was an honest mistake, then let’s correct it and resubmit our numbers to Washington, so our towns and taxpayers can get the help they deserve.”

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