MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Even though an estimated 40,000 New Jersey families remain displaced and thousands of businesses are closed because of superstorm Sandy, work hours have been slashed for federal employees assigned to the recovery effort in New Jersey.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency put its state staff of 1,600 on a standard 40-hour schedule this week after allowing nearly unlimited overtime after the storm struck Oct. 29.
The rollback of hours doesn’t affect New York, where FEMA staffers can still log 55 “core hours” each week, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.
New Jersey isn’t being shortchanged, said the FEMA spokesman, Darrel Habisch.
“As FEMA programs in any disaster operation matures, the need for long hours decreases. This is a natural progression of each program’s cycle. Some programs require more intensive labor and others decrease in labor requirements as the disaster recovery process continues,” Habisch said. “Each disaster is different in relation to geographic area, population needs and speed of recovery.”
Habisch said overtime will be allowed “when warranted.”
“We want to be smart with the deployment of labor and expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
FEMA closed several of its disaster recovery centers in both New Jersey and New York in the past month as it said demand decreased. The centers are open six days a week in both states, but New Jersey offices are open an hour longer each day for a total of 57 hours a week.
The staffing change was made amid complaints about a backlog of flood insurance claims. Members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation wrote to FEMA last week to express a “growing concern” with how long it’s taking to process claims filed with the National Flood Insurance Program. Officials said staffing for that program isn’t being reduced.
Gov. Chris Christie complained that the flood insurance program’s handling of claims “has stunk” and that tens of thousands of cases remain unresolved.
New Jersey soon will receive $1.82 billion in federal disaster aid as a first installment in a massive Sandy recovery package.
A spokesman for Christie said it’s anticipated FEMA will be staffed adequately to help push out that money “and meet continuing needs of New Jersey, and if that turns out not to be the case, we’re certain adjustments would be made.”
The reduction in work hours “is not unexpected and along the lines of what we experienced after Irene (in 2011) as well,” said the spokesman, Michael Drewniak. “At some point FEMA begins to scale back operations as time passes and the cleanup and assistance programs progress.”
Rep. Frank J. Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said, “The humanitarian aspect of the storm recovery is less, but in terms of rebuilding there is a lot of work ahead of us. I’ll leave it to FEMA to decide what staffing levels are needed to get it done.”
“They just need to make sure they’re serving everybody adequately,” Pallone said. “Clearly, there’s still a great need for people to meet with and talk with FEMA representatives, especially as programs for grant money become available for homeowners and businesses and public assistance projects move forward.”
No official addressed how sweeping federal budget cuts scheduled to begin next month could affect the speed of recovery efforts.
Public officials in New Jersey’s hardest-hit towns also said they hope recovery efforts aren’t affected.
“So far we haven’t had any problems with accessibility to their people, so I hope that remains the case. Our recovery is moving along well,” Stafford Mayor John Spodofora said.
New Jersey has 256,000 registrations for FEMA assistance, but the deadline for new applications is March 1, Feb. 27 in New York. Habisch said the number of people seeking help for the first time has been waning. The deadline for Connecticut, which had fewer people affected, has passed.
So far, $360 million has been paid out for home repairs or replacement, rental assistance and other needs in New Jersey. Another $446.7 million in low-interest disaster loans has been approved for more than 6,400 homes and businesses.
FEMA, which has its state headquarters in the former Avaya office complex in Middletown, N.J., has placed 111 families in Fort Monmouth housing and 35 families in temporary trailers.
Bob Jordan reports for Asbury Park (N.J) Press.