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Hurricane Sandy Relief Funds: Following the Money

From Bruce Springsteen to the Episcopal Church, who decides how to use the tens of millions of dollars being collected to help Sandy's victims?

First there was New Jersey legend Bruce Springsteen headlining a star-studded telethon to benefit the American Red Cross. Then there was Oscar de la Hoya and his Los Angeles-based Golden Boy Productions donating the proceeds from a night of boxing to the decimated Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City.

Now, National Hockey League all-stars Brad Richards and Scott Hartnell have announced Operation Hat Trick, a charitable professional hockey game to be played Saturday night at A.C.’s Boardwalk Hall to raise money for the Red Cross, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund (HSNJRF), and the Empire State Relief Fund.

Next in the lineup, a Dave Matthews Band benefit concert November 30 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford for a relief fund set up within the Community Foundation of New Jersey,

The Boss will be back 12-12-12 at Madison Square Garden. And the list goes on . . .

Since Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey October 29th, celebrities, politicians, corporations, foundations, religious organizations, and private citizens have poured donations into the Jersey Shore and other areas smashed by the worst mid-Atlantic storm in memory.

Some donors pledge a dollar at the QuikChek cash register or slip a quarter into one of those ubiquitous boxes found at gas stations, while others, like Hess Corp., pledge $2.5 million to the HSNJRF, established just over two weeks ago by Gov. Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat.

But with U.S. property damage totaling an estimated 20 billion dollars, according to forecasting firm IHS Global Insight, and almost 300 New Jersey residents still occupying the three remaining Red Cross shelters, where does all that money go? And who makes those decisions?

While some organizations, like the Red Cross, landed immediately on the ground to provide critical care to storm victims, for the most part, charity organizations say it will be a coordinated effort from foundations across New Jersey, both longstanding and newly created. It’s too early for most of them to provide details, since many will be conducting thorough needs assessments over the next few months.

Filling the Gap

But those that plan on dealing with long-term needs agree that they will look to “fill the gap” between what private insurance and the government can provide and what will be needed by those affected.

That gap is going to be wide. According to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has so far received 221,000 storm-related claims from New Jersey individuals and families and doled out $217 million, assistance is a constantly moving target.

“With 221,000 claims being filed there are 221,000 different stories to be told,” said FEMA public affairs and media relations manager Scott Sanders. “Some people have homes that were destroyed and some people lost their cars. We’re doing everything we can to provide people with every nickel they can get.”

After private insurance, FEMA is the first line of monetary defense for disaster victims. Through its individual/household program, the agency uses federal funds to supply or pay for short-term lodging, property replacement, and structural repairs in counties declared federal disaster areas by the president. (Reimbursement to municipalities for infrastructure and facilities repairs falls under a different program.)

In New Jersey, all 21 counties qualify federal disaster areas. FEMA representatives process claims and answer questions in person at any of 30 disaster recovery centers operating statewide on a seven-day-a-week schedule. They also can be reached via their website, a hotline, and a mobile app. And they're always on the move, traveling door to door and to churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and community centers to assess victims’ needs and to explain their capabilities and limitations.

Their biggest limitation? The money doesn’t go far enough. Federal assistance cannot duplicate what’s available through private insurance, and it does not typically stretch to cover all of a claimant’s expenses. Hence, "the gap."

“When you have a disaster like a hurricane, the victims will get FEMA checks and they’ll get their own insurance checks and then there will be a huge gap between what insurance covers and what FEMA covers,” Mary Pat Christie told NJTV. “So to help these people rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives we are going to focus on gap funding.”

Christie’s fund has emerged as one of the state’s primary repositories for donations. In little more than two weeks, it’s collected $16 million from 7,800 donors, with $1.5 million coming in through the Internet, where donors are pledging anywhere from one dollar on up.

Thanks in part to its significant political clout, major donors to the fund (whose honorary vice chairman is former senator Bill Bradley) have included Hess ($2.5 million), AT&T ($1 million), and Bridgewater-based Sanofi ($500,000). Yesterday Christie announced that famous New Jerseysians Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Kelly Ripa, and Dr. Mehmet Oz will be among those serving on the advisory board, which is still under development.

Besides consulting with disaster-relief experts who worked massive hurricanes in Florida and the Gulf Coast, Christie has hired a consulting firm to trek through the worst-hit areas of the state to determine the most critical rebuilding needs.

She told NJTV that she expects to prioritize the creation of long-term recovery teams and mental-health assistance for almost immediate financial disbursement. Citing the rise in domestic violence and suicide rates after a disaster, Christie said she hopes to use some of the money to promote available mental health services.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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