Marc-Philip Ferzan, the executive director of Governor Christie's office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said he had barely settled in his office in the State House when New Jersey Chamber President Tom Bracken dropped by to appeal for grants, not low-interest loans, for businesses destroyed or affected by Superstorm Sandy.
"Tom and others said you have to have grants," Ferzan recalled this morning. "Businesses are not in position to take on debt."
"We recognize businesses can't wait," Ferzan added. "Tom told us that."
Since then, the state has proposed small business grants of up to $50,000 and no-interest loans of up to $5 million for business affected by the storm. The programs, which rely on federal funds, are awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
"We hope to have the green light from HUD within days," Ferzan said. "We want to get money on the street as soon as possible." The HUD approval would unleash a first wave of federal relief, a total of $1.8 billion, to New Jerseyans who have sustained damage to their homes and businesses, as well as local governments in towns hit hard by the storms.
Ferzan was the guest speaker at the N.J. Chamber's Breakfast Roundtable this morning, a rare public appearance for the Christie administration cabinet member heading the state's monumental task of recovering and rebuilding after Sandy.
"No state budget is designed or equipped to handle a disaster of this magnitude," Ferzan told Chamber members. More than 40,000 homes and 15,000 rentals suffered significant damage during the storm, said Ferzan, citing new data. There was $500 million in commercial property damage and business interruption losses, and $25 million in infrastructure damage, he said.
Ferzan's office was created in November so the state has a single point man for the storm recovery. He said his office's responsibilities include developing priorities for the state; lobbying for federal funds and the ability to use them with flexibility; identifying areas where the state could cut red tape to encourage rebuilding; balancing short-term needs like temporary housing and debris removal with long-term recovery; dealing with several federal bureaucracies with different cultures and leaders; and rebuilding so New Jersey could better withstand future storms.
Among other news Ferzan reported:
- The next pool of federal storm relief funding is expected to focus on infrastructure improvements.
- The state is asking Washington to push back deadlines on raising structures that are in flood zones, and is asking for exceptions for structures in urban areas such as high rises, which cannot be lifted.
- The state is working on both short-term and long-term solutions for "repetitive flooding areas" such as Hoboken, Jersey City and Moonachie. "We want to develop a long-term approach so we can give comfort to the people in those communities," Ferzan said. "We want to be able to tell these communities, 'This is the game plan and this is how we will approach it.'"
A huge challenge when dealing with a recovery and rebuilding effort of this magnitude is that most every issue is urgent. "Planning, designing and doing must be done in real time," he said. "We have developed a system to determine the best or least-worst options."
Ferzan ticked off signs of progress: The reconstruction of essential roadways like Route 35; the reopening of New Jersey Transit and PATH rail lines; and beach replenishment in towns like Belmar, Sea Bright and Lavallette.
Since being appointed by Gov. Christie on November 28, Ferzan said he has been offered "good luck" wishes by many friends and acquaintances. "But I can assure you, Gov. Christie and his team are not relying on good luck," Ferzan said. "We are working hard, setting goals and working together to achieve them. This is a forward-looking process."
Thank you to SOLIX for sponsoring the breakfast.
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