TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez has called on government officials to speed up the way home rebuilding aid is reaching thousands of New Jersey victims of Superstorm Sandy.
"This is not what I fought for when I was fighting for $15 billion for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. And 500 days after Sandy, this is not the place I thought we'd be at, I thought we'd be further along," Menendez told 1010 WINS.
Menendez, who is a senator for the still storm-battered state, said the process could be made quicker in part by revamping a burdensome application process.
Menendez said at a hearing of a Senate Banking housing subcommittee that he chairs that 12,000 people have gotten preliminary approval for aid under New Jersey's largest federally funded home rebuilding effort, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program.
But only 2,700 have been told they can begin construction -- more than 16 months after the storm caused devastation along the East Coast.
Menendez said part of the problem has been that state officials have placed federally required environmental and historic preservation reviews at the end of the lengthy aid application process. That delays rebuilding because federal rules allow reconstruction work to begin once those reviews are completed, he said.
The lawmaker said he hopes Trenton can get its act together and get help to the Sandy victims who still need it, 1010 WINS reported.
"We need to get greater transparency, clearer standards, and when problems occur, instead of denial and finger pointing, we need an openness to feedback and a willingness to do the hard work in finding solutions," Menendez said.
It doesn't matter who is to blame, Menendez said he just wants the needed changes to be made, 1010 WINS reported.
"A New Jersey resident still displaced 17 months after Sandy struck doesn't care whose responsible for leaving them out in the cold. They want solutions, they want to get back in their homes, they want to get their lives back to normal," the lawmakers said.
Complaints about lost applications, long delays, lack of information and other problems in the aid distribution process have been rampant in New Jersey. In recent weeks, Gov. Chris Christie's administration quietly terminated the state's $68 million contract with Hammerman & Gainer Inc. because it was unhappy with how the company was handling applications for housing recovery aid.
Menendez said the company has billed New Jersey for $51 million for just a few months of work under what was supposed to be a three-year contract, calling it "mind-boggling.''
"That cannot be the case,'' Menendez said of the company's requested payment. "I assure you that will not be the case.''
Federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told the subcommittee that New Jersey officials could reorder the application process, performing the environmental and historic reviews early on, without automatically jeopardizing federal aid.
Donovan said that as of January, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration had helped more than 265,000 U.S. families and businesses hurt by Sandy. He also said more than 99 percent of federal flood insurance claims related to Sandy had been paid out, totaling nearly $8 billion.
But he acknowledged, "The recovery can never happen fast enough for the Americans who have been affected.''
In his written testimony, Donovan said that in early March 2013 -- less than two months after Congress approved an aid package for Sandy recovery -- his agency issued guidelines for how local agencies could use the money.
Donovan said that while three agencies had submitted plans for using the money to his department by early May, "Some grantees have been more aggressive in accessing'' their money than others.
The state, meanwhile, announced one change designed to get money to recipients faster. Those using their own contractors to rebuild homes can request 50 percent of their grant in advance under the change, which went into effect Monday.
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