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Sandy victims get generous boost from FEMA

A house on Raritan Bay in Union Beach N.J. was torn in half when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in late October.

Wayne Parry /Associated Press

A house on Raritan Bay in Union Beach N.J. was torn in half when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in late October.

NEW YORK — New York and New Jersey homeowners hit hard by Hurricane Sandy are receiving an unusually generous array of federal financial assistance, even as some safeguards were initially relaxed to speed distribution.

The moves testify to the clout of the region’s congressional delegation and the push by federal authorities in Washington to avoid criticisms about unresponsiveness that emerged in the aftermath of other major disasters.

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Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they had to take innovative steps to accelerate repairs on damaged homes and apartment buildings in a metropolitan area with a severe shortage of vacant housing and a lack of open space for trailers, which have served as temporary housing after other disasters. The new forms of assistance have been praised in storm-damaged communities but have also provoked some criticism in Washington, where the debate on cutting the deficit continues.

The effort includes $131 million in so-called expedited rental assistance, a rarely used federal benefit that provides money for homeowners to secure temporary housing. That money was delivered to 45,000 families living in the most badly hit areas even before inspections were completed to determine damage to individual homes and regardless of whether families had rented other apartments. Subsequent checks being sent to all storm-aid recipients in New York and New Jersey are 25 percent higher than they would be under the government’s normal formula.

Another new program provides homeowners in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey with government-paid contractors to make up to $10,000 worth of emergency repairs — effectively expanding federal disaster aid for these families by as much as a third. Despite long-standing limits on the use of federal disaster money to benefit private businesses, landlords are also being offered government help to rapidly complete initial repairs to their rental properties in New York City, where the program is called Rapid Repairs.

In total, more than $1 billion in cash assistance has been distributed so far by FEMA, to 162,000 families, mostly in New York and New Jersey, earning Hurricane Sandy a spot as one of the most expensive storms in the history of FEMA’s disaster assistance program for individuals and families.

That is just the beginning: President Obama is seeking congressional approval for a special appropriation of $60 billion to cover the cost of the storm.

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‘‘The alternative is to have citizens of the United States who continue to suffer,’’ said Michael Byrne, a former New York City firefighter who is the FEMA official in charge of the recovery effort in New York. ‘‘There isn’t another solution.’’

But already some on Capitol Hill are starting to question whether FEMA has gone too far, almost inviting the waste and fraud that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

‘‘Victims of disasters should receive appropriate relief to tide them over and help them begin to rebuild their lives,’’ said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees FEMA. ‘‘But Congress should ensure, however, that FEMA is not awarding more than the law allows.’’

The extra aid is certainly welcome in storm-damaged communities.

On a recent morning, at Michael and Veronica Sullivan’s three-bedroom bungalow in the Rockaways, in Queens, a half-dozen workers in hard hats tore out wallboard and insulation that had been soaked by sea water. The repairs included installing a new boiler and water heater, replacing an electrical panel and reconnecting wiring, all at no charge to the Sullivans, who are staying temporarily in a rental apartment being paid for in part by FEMA.

‘‘I’ve been paying taxes for how long?’’ said Sullivan, 53, an operating engineer for a housing development in Brooklyn. ‘‘If I could get something, I’m going to take it.’’

The owners of nearly 12,000 properties have enrolled in the Rapid Repairs program in New York City, which uses contractors hired by the city to restore electricity, heat, and hot water and to remove debris, including drywall, appliances, and carpet.

Cas Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations, said that city officials had come up with the idea for the program, which draws from a pool of money normally reserved for providing temporary housing, because many residents were trying to stay in homes with no heat or hot water as winter approached.

‘‘The program fits the notion of sheltering in place at home,’’ Holloway said. ‘‘This is an innovative application of that standard and traditional support that FEMA provides to local governments in public assistance.’’

Typically, in the aftermath of a disaster, private landlords, like other business owners, are only eligible for low-interest loans from the federal government. And homeowners are typically not allowed to receive more than $31,900 in assistance from FEMA to cover the cost of temporary housing or damage to their homes.

But, under a new policy adopted administratively, without congressional approval, two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit, FEMA agreed to ease both of these restrictions at the request of officials from New York seeking to restore as much housing as soon as possible.

City officials said they expected to spend as much as $500 million on the repairs program and to be reimbursed by FEMA for at least 75 percent of it.

Sabina Bove, 58, said that after she applied for the program, contractors hooked up a new furnace at her Staten Island duplex at no cost to her, allowing her to live there again full time.

‘‘It was like a godsend,’’ she said. ‘‘When you go through a tragedy like this, you don’t realize what a strain it puts on you. The money and the help — it was just all there.’’

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