As New York, New Jersey and other areas along the northeast coastline continue to repair and rebuild after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy five weeks ago, federal disaster officials defended the process by which localities receive financial aid while acknowledging room still exists for improvement.

According to the most recent estimates, damages from Sandy have surged to $37 billion in New Jersey and $40 billion in New York. New York’s electrical grid, transportation infrastructure and communications network needs $9.1 billion in repairs – with $5 billion alone going to the transportation authority, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Some stations need up to $600 million in repairs while the system’s entire Rockaway Line has been temporarily replaced by shuttles.

In New Jersey, transit rebuilding costs are an estimated $1.4 billion while water and sewer repairs will top $3 billion, according to the latest estimates from the governor's office.

At a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Craig Fugate responded to congressional lawmakers who said the agency was not acting fast enough.

“The standard FEMA reimbursement process will not work,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “The state and the city do not have billions of dollars sitting in their coffers to advance fund repairs and FEMA reimbursement is slow and cumbersome.”

Committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., has been calling on the Senate to take up a bill that he says would address some of that bureaucracy. The bill, H.R. 2903, proposes several reforms for FEMA and was passed by the House in September but is sitting idle in the Senate.

The bill would require FEMA to review its policies and regulations with the goal of speeding up the recovery process so that states can rebuild faster and with fewer costs. A new requirement would also allow FEMA to accept cost estimates from aid applicants and allows states to administer hazard mitigation grants.

Along with making permanent a debris removal pilot program, the bill is designed to “cut through the red tape and … the bureaucratic nightmare other states have had to deal with,” Mica said Tuesday, alluding to the rebuilding effort still taking place along the Gulf Coast more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina.

“Some 10 years from now we won’t want to be having hearings and asking why is it taking so long to rebuild from Sandy,” Mica said, adding that Louisiana still has more than $1 billion in claims from Katrina.

Fugate said he supported the bill but doubted that speeding up the process by which financial aid is delivered to those rebuilding would fix the problem.

“How do you speed up the process while maintaining accountability [to the taxpayers]?” he asked.

In the days following Sandy, FEMA helped restore public transit by dispatching the Army Corps of Engineers to flooded areas in New York and New Jersey, including the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Queens–Midtown tunnel “along with several other tunnels and tracks,” according to Fugate’s submitted testimony. The Federal Transit Administration has now been tasked with assigning project management oversight contractors who will assess the damages and who will verify the assessments presented by the two states.

Power outages following the storm spread to 8.5 million customers at its peak but was reduces to fewer than 1 million within a week. The day after the storm, President Obama established a national power restoration working group to increase coordination and speed up restoration. Some 225 power restoration vehicles, six generators, 15 trucks five trailers and more than 400 personnel were airlifted to help in the effort to restore power.
To combat the fuel shortage in New York and New Jersey, FEMA ensured that it was distributed to first responders but ultimately the fuel made available was “at the discretion of the states,” Fugate’s testimony stated.

Robert Latham, Mississippi’s emergency management agency director, told the committee that FEMA funding is not a cure-all. “Recovery must be driven at the local level,” he said. “There are never enough resources to rebuild the way we want to. But that does not mean we can’t rebuild smarter, safer.”

But FEMA can certainly do better than it’s been doing for rebuilding projects in the Gulf following Katrina, said Mark Riley, deputy director of Louisiana’s Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness office. He brought a poster which illustrated a timeline for a single rebuilding project in New Orleans that FEMA is helping to fund. Seven years and 182 FEMA meetings later, the city’s new youth study center is expected to be completed in 2016 – 11 years after Katrina.

“We can certainly do better than this,” Mica said.

Fugate said FEMA has $4.88 billion in its disaster relief fund but it is still aiding victims of other disasters like Hurricane Isaac and the derecho storm that swept through the mid-Atlantic and Midwest this summer. He added he hoped to get supplemental funding this spring.