Christie boosts estimate of New Jersey’s Sandy recovery cost to $36.9 billion

(MCT) — TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie boosted the cost of New Jersey’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy to $36.9 billion Wednesday and hired a former assistant U.S. attorney to oversee the state’s rebuilding effort.

A parade of escalating numbers detailed Sandy’s toll: More than 30,000 businesses and homes destroyed or structurally damaged, an additional 42,000 homes with problems, 100 miles of beach severely eroded. Already, Christie said, 233,000 people in the state have registered for assistance.

The revised cost estimate — which represents a $7.4 billion jump from the initial figures last week — now includes money to help the state forestall similar devastation in any future natural disasters. They were submitted to the White House on Wednesday as one of the first steps in a campaign to secure an unprecedented infusion of federal aid for the region.

“We think we’ve been very responsible with the numbers we put forward,” Christie said. “We haven’t padded the numbers, we’re not playing games, we’re not negotiating. These are numbers that we need and we hope that members of Congress go down and get it for us.”

The numbers submitted so far offer a broad-brush assessment of the havoc wreaked by Sandy in late October. Coupled with New York’s latest request for about $42 billion, they clearly put Sandy in rare company, giving it the potential to exceed Hurricane Katrina as the most costly storm ever in the United States.

Christie announced the latest damage assessment — and pledged bipartisan cooperation with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in seeking relief — during a State House news conference at which he introduced Marc Ferzan as New Jersey’s new overseer of the storm recovery. Ferzan worked under Christie at the U.S. attorney’s office for nearly a decade while the governor led the agency.

Christie said he made the decision to put one person in charge of the overall effort — rather than spread out the responsibility, as Cuomo has done — after consulting with various governors who steered their states through Katrina. Christie also announced Wednesday that the state has retained Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm that was heavily involved in Katrina, to work with Ferzan.

“What I wanted was someone who was smart enough and tough enough and aggressive enough to do this,” the governor said of Ferzan. “I’ve watched Marc over the last 10 years in a variety of different positions, and every time he’s performed and exceeded my expectations, and I expect this is going to be the biggest challenge he’ll ever face, but I expect he’s going to perform in the same way.”

Ferzan, 45, of Lawrenceville, managed a staff of 8,000 when he was the state’s executive assistant attorney general for two years until he left earlier this year to become managing director of PricewaterhouseCooper’s investigative consulting practice.

“I am truly humbled and honored to take on this role,” Ferzan said. “New Jersey is my home. It is where I grew up. My family is here, my friends are here and the destruction I recognize has and will continue to touch all of us in the weeks and months to come.”

Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, reiterated their commitment to avoid any competition for federal funding — and instead lobby Congress together to secure up to $78 billion in assistance — in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Governor Cuomo and I have been around for a long time, we know the old game of divide and conquer,” Christie said at the news conference. “We’re not going to let any political forces in Washington, D.C., divide and conquer us. We’re going to go down there as a team. We’re going to work together and we’re going to advocate for the numbers that we put forward. These are realistic numbers that we need.”

A damage assessment such as the one submitted Wednesday by New Jersey usually starts a process that leads to a disaster declaration. But since President Barack Obama made that declaration the night Sandy hit, the assessments by Christie and Cuomo are likely to have more of a political impact as members of Congress push for more aid.

There are political decisions aplenty to make, since the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself does not have adequate funding to meet the recovery demands of the states.

“They could be significant to support the efforts in the lame-duck session to obtain an additional supplemental appropriation for the Disaster Relief Fund because it clearly will be drained by Sandy,” said Ernie Abbott, founder of FEMA’s law consulting firm.

New Jersey’s entire congressional delegation signed a letter this week urging Obama to send a special funding request to Capitol Hill.