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Public Statements

Disaster Relief

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. MENENDEZ. Mr. President, I rise to respond to some of the comments I heard from my colleagues with reference to the Hurricane Sandy emergency supplemental. Hopefully I can give all of our colleagues--who will be casting a vote here at some point--an understanding as to why we hold a different view than some of the comments that have been made.

One of those comments I will generally put under the rubric we can wait and do something small. Various comments have been referenced in that respect. Some seem to be questioning whether this emergency is worthy of a robust Federal response. They say the cost to help families rebuild and recover is too much and should be reduced. I have heard that in this emergency it is not necessary, and unlike many other similar emergencies in the past, we should do something smaller and wait to do the rest later.

I think those who suggest or make that argument don't seem to understand that a piecemeal recovery is a failed recovery. We cannot rebuild half of a bridge unless we know the entirety of the money that is necessary is committed, like the Mantoloking Bridge in New Jersey, which I have shown many pictures of. We cannot hire a contractor to ultimately replace an entire sewage treatment system that had enormous amounts of sewage dispersing directly into the Hudson River because it was overcome if we only have half of the funding. We cannot hire a contractor to rebuild half a home or restore half of a community unless we know the money is there and that they can depend upon it in order to finish the project. We need the money in place to rebuild entire projects and entire areas to ensure that families and businesses devastated by the storm can recover.

Right now there are literally tens of thousands of small business owners trying to decide whether to reopen or pack it in. They are in a limbo. They are waiting to see what we, their Federal Government, do to respond to their tragedy. They are making decisions in their lives, their businesses, and everyone who is hired by those businesses. They are frozen and waiting to make those decisions based on whether the government is going to offer them a small business loan at low rates that are competitive with the marketplace and have longer term payments. Will they give them a grant toward rebuilding? What type of other benefits will they be able to derive in order to make a determination of whether they can open their business again? Having just a sense that there is only some emergent money and not the moneys to be able to do that doesn't allow them to open their business. It doesn't allow them to make that decision, and it freezes them in time.

The same thing is true for the person who, as winter is biting in the Northeast, faces the challenges of deciding what they might get from the government as it relates to rebuilding their home. Should they go forth or not? It is as if some of our colleagues don't believe when we describe this tragedy--and I welcome any one of our colleagues who wants to visit us in New Jersey to come with me to see the breadth, depth, and scope of our devastation. I have already taken a number of Members who were willing to go.

I ask my colleagues: Do you think Governor Christie is making this up? Do you think this fiscal hawk of the Republican Party is looking for Federal aid that is not desperately needed? Do you think we made up these photos of the damage? I can assure everyone we did not.

This is a picture taken just at one small part of the Jersey shore. If I could have a continuum that would bring us around this Chamber, it would look exactly like this. This is Ortley Beach. It shows blocks and blocks of homes that have been totally destroyed. It is an image that can be seen up and down the New Jersey coast.

Here is another example in Union Beach. It is half a home, but that whole community was significantly devastated. If we were to see this community, there would be rows and rows of houses reduced to rubble. I think that is the reality of what we have as a continuation of those neighborhoods in Union Beach.

I was talking to the mayor today--as part of a group of mayors--about their challenges, and this is an example of what he is facing throughout his community.

The storm damage is real and the Governor's request for funding is actually $20 billion higher than the supplemental we are debating. It is significant that it is $20 billion higher than the amount we are debating. These requests were scrubbed by OMB from the Governor's original request and gone over with a fine-tooth comb by the Appropriations Committee. Everything in this bill, whether it is about Sandy or something else, is about declared disasters. Now is the time to come to our neighbors' help.

Secondly, there are those who come to the floor and say they are upset about the Army Corps element of this disaster bill and that the budget in this bill is too rigorous. They say that planning and rebuilding for the future is a waste, and that we can have another legislative opportunity to deal with the future. I would submit to those Members who very much care about fiscal responsibility that it is neither efficient, effective, nor fiscally responsible. What should we do, have the Army Corps go back to exactly what existed before? In many cases, what existed before did not sustain those communities, did not withhold the consequence of the surge, and created enormous losses.

We lost over 40 lives. The storm affected over 300,000 homes--30,000 permanently gone.

It seems to me, if we want to be smart fiscally, planning for the future means rebuilding well and rebuilding smart. It means rebuilding in a way that protects us from future storms.

We learned a lot from this superstorm. We know Army Corps coastal defenses work. Where we had them in place, the damage was minimal; where we didn't, there was more devastation, there was more damage, there was more destruction, and more recovery costs.

Stockton College did a study of the Army Corps beach engineering projects before and after the storm, and what it found was unambiguous. Where the Army Corps was able to complete a beach engineering project recently, the dunes helped and damage to communities behind the project was manageable.

Here is a picture taken at Surf City, NJ, right after the storm. This beach received beach engineering in 2007 as part of the Army Corps Long Beach Island Shore Protection Project, and my colleagues can see that despite damage being done to the dune, the dune held and saved lives, saved property, and saved money.

Alternatively, the pictures of Union Beach, which I previously referred to--it is a working-class town that couldn't afford the local match for the Army Corps project, and as my colleagues can see, we have an entirely devastated neighborhood. So we see the fundamental difference: Engineered beaches by the Army Corps, minimal destruction: Those that weren't engineered, maximum destruction; costs, and consequences. Rebuilding the defenses only to the standard that existed before the storm will just give us more of the same in the next storm. If we don't do things differently, we shouldn't expect a different outcome.

In this photo, we also see the homes destroyed by the storm surge. Yes, we can help these homeowners rebuild, but if we don't rebuild smarter, better, and with stronger coastal protections, we will be paying again after the next storm, both in terms of human suffering and Federal funds. The storm crews with the Army Corps of Engineers, academic studies, and local community officials have been telling us for years that beach engineering works. It protects lives. It protects properties. It saves us money in the long run.

Time is of the essence. The severe storm damage caused by Sandy has left New Jersey defenseless. As we enter what is our most vulnerable storm season--the winter Nor'easters--we don't need a Superstorm Sandy to have major consequences all the way up and down the communities throughout New Jersey.

Right now, the Jersey shore is similar to a person with a weak immune system. The storm has destroyed our defenses, and that is why we need to rebuild them quickly. If we don't, a relatively mild storm can cause catastrophic damage.

This is a challenge to us right now--right now. Suggesting the Army Corps budget is not one we need right now and it can wait--these communities can't wait. These communities can't wait. In fact, it will be far more costly to us.

I think we have close to anywhere between $750 million and $1 billion in Army Corps of Engineers projects that have been approved--passed and been approved--but they have not had the funding. So when we add those that would ensure we don't end up like Ortley Beach and that we can recover those like Ortley Beach that have been battered and shattered, then I think it makes critical sense.

Finally, I know there are some who suggest mitigation is not worthy of this disaster. I think I have made the case, in the case of the Army Corps, although the Army Corps is not the only form of mitigation. Mitigation means rebuilding smarter and stronger. Whether it is through a flexible CDBG account that will allow the hardening of our electrical grid or elevating homes or via traditional Army Corps or FEMA programs, mitigation has long been a part of supplemental appropriations.

In the gulf coast, we spent $16 billion building a world-class storm protection system in Louisiana--$16 billion. In Alabama and Texas, we used CDBG funding to raise homes and improve infrastructure. So much of the public infrastructure in our region that was damaged as a result of the superstorm is eligible for reimbursement from FEMA. There is no disputing that.

The Stafford Act has now been the law of the land for many years, and it says the Federal Government will assume the cost of repairs to critical infrastructure after an event such as Sandy. These communities, when we talk to mayors in Little Ferry and Moonachie--not the Jersey Shore but northern New Jersey and other places that were dramatically hit--when I was visiting them soon after the storm, one mayor said to me, Mayor Vaccaro, I lost my police department, my fire department, and city hall is underwater.

They need to be protecting their citizens. They need to be able to fully depend upon the resources to get back their public safety efforts. It does not make good fiscal sense for Congress to pay to fix our broken infrastructure, which we are legally required to do, without looking to protect our investment and prevent similar costly damage in the future. To me, that makes a lot more fiscal sense at the end of the day. So we will look forward to coming back to the floor again and again as we deal with these issues, but I hope our colleagues understand the urgency of now.

Final point. After Katrina, in 10 days the Congress passed two emergency supplementals that totaled a little over $62 billion for Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. It has been 6 weeks--6 weeks, not 10 days, 6 weeks--since the storm hit New Jersey, New York, and the Northeast, and there hasn't been any action. The urgency of now is incredibly important and the urgency of doing this robustly is incredibly important to the recovery of a region that is so important to the economic engine of this country.


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