FEMA agents blanket N.J. after Hurricane Sandy ravages coast, claims roll in

By Peggy McGlone

Still criticized as an office that can’t get the job done, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken on a high profile role in the response to Hurricane Sandy, providing food, shelter, and emergency financial assistance to millions while also helping to coordinate the efforts to restore power and end the regional gas shortage.

In the four days since Sandy made landfall, some 2,300 FEMA agents have been involved in the response and recovery effort. The agency has released more than $18 million in rental and other forms of financial assistance, including more than $10.6 million to New Jersey residents, administrator Craig Fugate said.

Friday, FEMA opened disaster recovery centers in Brick and Cape May Courthouse — the first of at least 10 offices to be set up — and the agency added Somerset and Bergen counties to the federally-designated disaster area, which already included Atlantic, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties.

Gov. Chris Christie attended the opening of the Brick recovery center, located on the grounds of the Drum Point Road Elementary School. An office will open in Little Ferry today, and offices in Middlesex and Monmouth counties will be open by Monday, he said.

“These centers are boots-on-the-ground assistance from the federal government to help answer questions, provide guidance and get you the kind of help you need,” Christie said.

Rowan University Professor Robert Fleming, a national expert on emergency preparation and response, gave the agency high marks for its efforts. Weather-related disasters are especially hard to manage, he said.

“If you look at the magnitude of the storm, and the challenges it presented, it was a really coordinated plan,” Fleming said. “Clearly they did things in the way of pre-positioning of assets, and even in advance of the storm hitting, getting the appropriate declarations. A whole lot was done to mobilize resources.”

Fleming said FEMA learned a lot in the wake of Hurricane Katrina about issues of coordination, cooperation and communications and applied those lessons this week.

“Things started happening even before the storm hit and the process is continuing through,” he said.

Fugate said the key difference between FEMA’s response to Sandy and to its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast oil spill was advance preparation.

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