Disaster Relief Money Spent on TV Ads in New Jersey
Updated: Thursday, July 17 2014, 07:20 PM EDT
Hurricane Arthur raced up the east coast just last week leaving behind only minimal damage. Meantime the federal government has just announced a third round of disaster relief money, $2.5 billion, for states hit by superstorm Sandy in October of 2012.
Twenty months after superstorm Sandy, its slow going to rebuild hundreds of damaged properties in the small town of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Mayor Bill Schroeder blames, in part, a maddening bureaucracy that led residents to put off rebuilding while they waited for federal guidelines…guidelines that later disqualified them from getting help from New Jersey's $4.2 billion dollars in Sandy aid -- because their income wasn't low enough.
Yet disaster relief money went full speed ahead for an expense that is usually off limits: TV ads promoting tourism, featuring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The government gave New Jersey and New York special waivers to spend some of their disaster money on tourism ads.
Louisiana and Mississippi were granted the same special permission after Hurricane Katrina.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn says disaster aid funds are meant to help those directly affected.
"Why is it a federal role that we take money from Oklahoma or Louisiana or California and send money to New Jersey so they can run ads to suck people out of those states to go to New Jersey?" Coburn said.
The department of Housing and Urban Development (or HUD) administers the $15.2 billion allocated for rebuilding from Sandy. It granted the waivers for tourism ads.
Nobody there would agree to an interview. In a letter to Senator Coburn, a HUD official said, "Tourism support can be a useful recovery tool in a damaged regional economy that depends on tourism."
In January, critics accused Christie of appearing in the taxpayer-funded Sandy ads to promote his reelection campaign, accusations he denies. HUD's inspector general is now conducting an audit to see whether New Jersey followed all the rules.
Thousands of NJ residents are still waiting to find out if they will get any Sandy relief money. Senator Coburn has asked HUD to stop allowing tens of millions of it to be spent on TV ads.
As for Point Pleasant? They've learned that getting disaster relief money is easier said than done. The townspeople will rebuild, the Mayor says, just without much help from billions in federal disaster funds.