Rating agency and emergency management officials say that quick work by the governors of New Jersey and New York may have saved the financial standing of many communities damaged by the storm that slammed through the mid-Atlantic region this month.
By moving rapidly to declare certain communities in their states disaster areas and to petition for federal assistance following the Dec. 10-11 storm, Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York gained quick approval of aid from President Bush through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Without the declaration of an emergency, there would have been some serious problems in many towns," said Jay Johnston, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
Moody's Investors Service said in a report issued yesterday that although the wind, snow, and rain caused extensive property damage, the federal government's promise to help rebuild hard-hit communities through its federal emergency agency should save their credit ratings.
The report says the credit ratings of New Jersey and New York communities damaged by the storm "should not be adversely affected by the storm," the report says.
"Municipalities which have been contacted, to date, express surprisingly little budgetary stress as a result of the storm," thanks to federal aid, the report adds.
In many cases, the federal government has provided enough assistance to spare these communities any expense at all, Moody's said.
Johnston said Florio's decision to declare portions of the state a disaster area will allow towns to fund the repairs without worrying about the state-mandated cap on local budgets, which lets a town's capital budget increase only 1.5% annually.
Hyman Grossman, managing director at Standard & Poor's Corp., said his agency will not issue a formal report on the storm's impact on the communities, but will keep close watch over the progress of the cleanup.
Federal officials said that like Florio, Cuomo's rapid move to declare New York City and Suffolk, Rockland, Nassau, and Westchester counties disaster areas helped move the request for aid to the President's desk quickly.
"Gov. Cuomo petitioned for the aid on [Dec. 14], and we were opening federal assistance offices the next day," said Donald Maurer, chief public information officer for the New York State Emergency Management Authority. "That kind of action goes a long way to make people feel better about rebuilding."
"As of Dec. 18, the damage to public areas declared disasters was over $196 million," Maurer said. "That figure only includes damage to roads, infrastructure, government, and not-for-profit buildings."
He said private damage will likely cost around $100 million.
"These are still very preliminary numbers," he said, noting that the damage to private property does not include estimates for New York City and Nassau County.
"It's still too soon to tell the extent of the damage to the area," said Linda Sacia, lead public information officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sacia explained that preliminary damage estimates were necessary when Florio and Cuomo petitioned the President for disaster assistance, but added that "those numbers invariably change pretty radically."
Depending on the amount of damaged property that is insured and how long it takes to repair bridges, roads, and tunnels, Sacia said, the figure could increase or decrease.
As for New Jersey, Florio declared Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Cumberland, Monmouth, and Ocean counties to be disaster areas on Dec. 14, setting in motion a chain of events that led to those counties being made eligible for federal disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
A week later, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties were added to the list of disaster areas. The damage in those counties is estimated at over $113 million, according to administration officials.
As the cleanup gets under way, small towns are faced with paying anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $95 million to repair the damage.
An example of the disparity in damage is Long Beach Island in Ocean County, N.J., where the northernmost part of the island, Barnegat Light, suffered approximately $18,000 damage. The southern part of the island, Beach Haven, suffered over $6 million in damage.
The 22-mile island is a summer haven with a population consistently over 100,000 in July and August, and about 8,600 off-season.
William Dondero, mayor of Beach Haven, said the area is "waiting to receive federal moneys that would cover 75% of repairs." He added that, "The rest of the money is going to have to come from the taxpayers, though."
According to Moody's, the federal government would provide 75% of the funds to the communities that have been declared disaster areas. The remaining 25%, the agency said, would be evenly split by local and state funds.
Dondero said the town has already made a $100,000 emergency allocation and may make another one next Monday.
"It looks as if the taxpayers are going to have to come up with at least a couple hundred thousand dollars," Dondero said. "I'm not ruling any method out."
Dondero said he and the town council are also considering increased public borrowing to support the repairs.
According to Standard & Poor's Corp., neither Long Beach Island town has outstanding general obligation bonds that would be affected by funding repairs.
The differences in damage to the two parts of the island can also be attributed to natural factors, according to Jeanne DiPaola, executive director of the Long Beach Island Chamber of Commerce.
"Part of the reason for the difference in damage on the island is because at the Barnegat end of the island, the dune wall and the ocean are further apart," said DiPaola. "Also, development in Beach Haven is a lot denser."
DiPaola said the entire island was subject to "some degree of flooding," which caused inventory damage in many businesses.