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Shifting from cleanup to rebuilding mode Observers prepare for slow process as money trickles in

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Crews work to clean the beach in Brick, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Money to rebuild is coming in, but must go through normal checks to prove it's being spent wisely.
Crews work to clean the beach in Brick, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Money to rebuild is coming in, but must go through normal checks to prove it's being spent wisely. - ()

David Zimmer has a note hanging over his desk designed to remind him of his mission for the foreseeable future.

It reads "Normal ASAP."

As executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, Zimmer is on the front lines of the rebuilding effort following Hurricane Sandy. The trust is a state authority that provides low-cost financing for wastewater treatment and water supply infrastructure projects, among others.

"What this sign does is it tells me, 'What do we need to do to expedite as quickly as possible whatever we end up doing to make the Sandy victims get their life back to normal as soon as we possibly can?' " he said.

The agency also was put in charge of New Jersey's portion of a $600 million Environmental Protection Agency-administered fund for Sandy-related infrastructure projects. That money will be split between New Jersey and New York.

Though Zimmer and other state officials have an attitude of immediacy, the process of working with state and federal tax dollars is one studded with procedures, checks and balances. Thus, while the emergency cleanup began immediately following the storm, the process of awarding and completing rebuilding contracts will unfold over many months.

In Zimmer's case, he's still waiting for guidance from the EPA on exactly when and how it can distribute its funds, so he's working to prepare as much as possible in the meantime.

"We're building and tweaking our database and website to anticipate what (the program) looks like, so when it ultimately gets decided we've got most of the work kind of pre-fabricated," he said.

The federal government didn't hold up the emergency cleanup. Gov. Chris Christie awarded statewide contracts to debris removal companies and monitors, which gave the town the option to do the work without having to bid it out.

In January, Congress approved a $51 billion regional aid package for states hit by Sandy. New Jersey's first installment of $1.8 billion is expected soon, assuming the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approves Christie's plan for distributing the money.

With the money now on its way, communities affected by the storm are beginning to pivot from cleanup mode to rebuilding mode. But Ken Burris, CEO of Witt O'Brien's, a Washington, D.C.-based emergency response consultancy, said the rebuilding won't happen overnight.

"I would say the rebuilding of the damaged public infrastructure is going to take place much like it took place when it was originally built," he said. "There will be request for bids and plans you have to review."

Witt O'Brien's was hired by the state to assist in navigating the often-tricky world of receiving and distributing federal disaster aid. Part of the company's work is helping municipalities and counties to fill out paperwork to get FEMA reimbursements.

"Where they're at in the recovery process is that the state is busily writing project worksheets … identifying damaged public infrastructure and identifying what would be the cost to build it back," Burris said.

Once approved by the state, those project worksheets will be forwarded to FEMA, which can accept the worksheets, or launch into a back-and-forth negotiation process over project eligibility or reimbursement levels.

Robert Briant Jr., CEO of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association, said the most time-sensitive projects are being repaired first.

"The type of work that has a direct relationship to tourism is being done now, a lot of beach repair work, sifting sand, cleaning up debris," he said.

Joe Dee, a Department of Transportation spokesman, said the agency estimates Sandy will cost it about $988 million in emergency and resiliency costs. Of that, $137 million went to emergency repairs, and $851 million will go toward capital projects.

Dee said the first contracts will be to replace 12.5 miles of Route 35, which was destroyed during the storm. The project is being bid out in three phases — the first went out last month, the next two will come this month and in May.

"By doing it this way, by having three contracts, they're more manageable in size for the construction companies, and they can start to work independently of each other," he said.

Dee said the goal is to be done in time for the 2015 tourist season. He said the state doesn't have to wait until it has federal money in hand to start a project, but he said they do want assurances.

Though many other projects are still on the drawing board, Briant said the rebuilding effort already has helped his industry, which has been hurting since the 2008 recession.

"It has improved," he said. "People were really struggling for a lot of years."

In addition to water, tourism and utility infrastructure, the state's transportation system also is getting an overhaul.

NJ Transit, for instance, is requesting some $1.2 billion in federal aid, of which $231 million has been awarded, via the Federal Transit Agency.

John Durso Jr., an NJ Transit spokesman, said about $800 million of the federal ask is for improving the rail operator's system resiliency. The rest will cover expenses from the immediate aftermath.

Last month, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority approved changes to its regional transportation infrastructure plan to allow NJ Transit to incorporate the new money into its resiliency planning.

The full economic impact of the storm will become clear over months or years, though, not days or weeks.

A Rutgers University study released in January estimated post-Sandy recovery expenditures will top $25 billion.

Joseph Seneca, an economist at Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said that money will move through the economy, benefiting not just contractors, but the companies those contractors do business with. He said the impact should be felt through at least next year — "as long as the expenditures continue," he said.

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

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