Clerical Error Kept Bergen from Snowstorm Disaster Aid, Officials Say

Congressmen Rothman, Pascrell call on FEMA to expand disaster declaration.

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By James Kleimann and Noah Cohen

December 1, 2011

Ridgewood Patch

A paperwork snafu prevented Bergen County from being included in Wednesday’s Presidential disaster declaration designed to give federal aid to areas hard hit by the October snowstorm, county officials confirmed.

In a letter to President Barack Obama last month, Gov. Chris Christie requested federal aid for eleven counties, including Bergen. The governor pointed to widespread power outages. When the president’s declaration came, however, Bergen, Passaic and Middlesex were left out.

“It appears that a clerical error prevented the declaration for Bergen,” said Jeanne Baratta, Chief of Staff to County Executive Kathleen Donovan.

According to regulations published in early October, FEMA has a threshold of $3.39 in damages that each resident of a county must incur in order for the county to qualify for federal disaster relief. For Bergen County, with a population of some 900,000, that would amount to approximately $3 million. County emergency management director Lt. Dwane Razzetti said a FEMA report put the cost of the storm at $5.6 million, well above the threshold; however, the state reported Bergen’s damages much lower, at $1.2 million.

“We were pretty sure we were over the threshold,” Razzetti said. He said he was “shocked” when he found out the numbers the state sent to the federal government did not match the figures from the FEMA report.

Officials could not pinpoint an exact breakdown in the process, but said they would push for a declaration.

“Right now they don’t believe we have to appeal this because the error was clerical on the part of the NJ OEM [New Jersey Office of Emergency Management],” Baratta said.

Middlesex and Passaic missed out on the aid because they too did not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “per-capita damage” cost threshold, state and federal officials said. Passaic reported $1.5 million in damages, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management. That would be less than the FEMA threshold of approximately $1.7 million for a county of 500,000 residents.

Goepfert said there was no clerical error, but the state was working with the three counties.

“We are going to evaluate their data and determine if additional documentation exists which would support an appeal and a Declaration,” she said in a follow up e-mail Thursday.

Congressman Steve Rothman said it’s not the first time Bergen and Passaic were left out by FEMA. Not too long ago the Fair Lawn congressman had to fight to get Bergen and Passaic qualified for federal money after Hurricane Irene, he said.

Rothman and Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-8) wrote to FEMA chief William Craig Fugate Thursday urging him to add the two North Jersey counties to the declaration.

“In Bergen County five people lost their lives to house fires and vehicle fires directly related to this last storm. So I believe very strongly on the merits FEMA should now include Bergen and Passaic counties in its disaster declaration just as they added our two counties after their initial assessments after Hurricane Irene,” Rothman said in an interview Thursday.

In the letter to Fugate, Rothman and Pascrell said they were “extremely concerned” that Bergen and Passaic were not included in the first declaration.

“Living in Bergen County and living less than a half mile from Passaic County, I can say the damage was severe,” Rothman said.

Updated 10 a.m. Friday with a follow up comment from the New Jersey OEM.

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