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Ensuring federal Sandy aid isn't hauled away with all the debris

Officials hire monitors to avoid losing reimbursements to loopholes

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Without a monitor, it can be harder to be reimbursed for debris removal, says Sam Rosania. Here, Rosania is at a Sandy cleanup site in Brick.
Without a monitor, it can be harder to be reimbursed for debris removal, says Sam Rosania. Here, Rosania is at a Sandy cleanup site in Brick. - (AARON HOUSTON)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many a roadway was blocked by a tangle of tree limbs, power lines and other random debris. For local officials hoping to qualify for federal cleanup reimbursement, the debris might as well have been tangled in red tape.

"Once we actually started reading the FEMA regulations as to what they do allow and do not allow, the township clearly realized we were going to be in over our head," said Scott Pezarras, business administrator for Brick. "They have a section of regulation — an entire section — on stumps. Not the tree, but the stumps."

Waste haulers can only remove a stump if its root ball — the tangled mass of roots below the ground — is more than 50 percent exposed, Pezarras said. If it's only 40 percent exposed, the work might not be reimbursable.

The web of regulations, and opportunity for fraud, are two reasons the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires local governments to implement a monitoring program to oversee debris removal. Local officials can do the monitoring in-house, but often hire a monitoring contractor specializing in disaster recovery.

Sam Rosania, vice president at Arcadis U.S. Inc., said his monitors track every phase of debris removal, from determining what can and cannot be picked up to verifying the size of the loads dropped off at landfills or other debris sites.

For instance, he said, a hauler might be tempted to pick up a tree in the roadway of a debris area, but if the storm happened weeks ago and a tree branch has green leaves on it, it probably wasn't knocked down by the storm, and thus wouldn't qualify for reimbursement.

"For FEMA to reimburse the area, the debris has to be eligible, it has to be in the right of way, has to be generated from the storm and so forth," Rosania said, which creates opportunities for firms like Arcadis. And there's plenty at stake for local governments, as FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of eligible cleanup costs.

Arcadis was one of two contractors, along with SAIC, initially awarded state contracts to monitor debris removal through a competitive bidding process. The state subsequently awarded monitoring contracts to Witt O'Brien's and the Louis Berger Group.

Regine de la Cruz, a Louis Berger representative, said the company has a shared services agreement with Ocean County, under which they provide monitoring to some 14 municipalities and the county itself.

Arcadis has contracted with 17 municipalities, and has already overseen the removal of some 1.4 million cubic yards of debris.

While some of the regulations governing debris clearing can be a source of frustration for municipal officials, Ernest Abbott, an attorney at the Washington, D.C., firm FEMA Law Associates, said removal projects can be fertile ground for fraud.

"There was one debris removal operation where the debris was being measured by the height and the circumference of a debris pile," he said about post-storm work in another state. "The applicant was not aware that FEMA had requested helicopter pictures of the debris pile." Those aerial photos showed a giant doughnut hole in the center of the debris pile.

In other instances, he said, truck drivers could show up at the dump site, register the weight of the truck, then drive in a circle — without dumping the waste — and get in line at the weigh station again. A monitor can catch such behavior before the town, or the federal government, gets hit with the bill.

"It's important that you be able to document the work that was performed following the disaster," said John Buri, director of client services for SAIC's disaster recovery division. "Those records become extremely valuable not just in the immediate aftermath, but long after."

SAIC, the other of the initial state contractors, has worked with six municipalities, and recently began working with the state Department of Environmental Protection on a vessel removal program.

Buri said he still gets calls with questions about the cleanup from 2008's Hurricane Ike, one of the costliest hurricanes to make landfall in the United States.

"Just because you receive the money doesn't necessarily mean that there's not a mechanism for after-audit, whether it's FEMA or some other agency, to reclaim that fund because the documentation you have doesn't support the amount of reimbursement that you received," he said.

"They give me every morning a report as to what's been taken to the landfill," said Brian Magory, a councilman in Bay Head, which hired Arcadis to monitor AshBritt Inc.'s debris removal. "So then I can in turn take a look at what's been done and compare it against AshBritt's contract to make sure the billing is accurate, too."

Magory said he sends a report to the borough clerk each morning so she has answers when residents call asking when their street will be cleared.

Most of the immediate work is completed or soon to be completed, but both Rosania and Buri said they'll continue to be active in New Jersey. SAIC is still monitoring vessel removal, while Arcadis is busy monitoring private property debris removal — which was recently authorized by FEMA — as well as sand sifting.

As his borough moves from recovery to rebuilding, Magory said he's happy to have had help wading through the cleanup bureaucracy.

"I've learned so much more about this than I ever wanted," he said.

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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