Congress takes first hard look at Sandy damage

Congress on Thursday took its first hard look at the damage from Superstorm Sandy amid appeals for tens of billions of dollars in additional disaster assistance to rebuild from one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the Northeast.
Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, lawmakers from states incurring the most damages painted a painted a grim picture of destruction from the late October storm that left 131 people dead.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the hardest-hit states, said more than 300,000 homes were seriously damaged from New York City to the eastern tip of Long Island alone. He said more than 20 million square feet of commercial offices are still closed.
Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, cited Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that nearly 72,000 buildings were damaged in New Jersey, which was also hard hit by the storm. He said along the battered coast, storm surges destroyed neighborhoods, ruined businesses, and displaced families.
"Imagine seeing your home or small business _ which represented your dreams and aspirations _ reduced to a pile of rubble," Lautenberg said. "Imagine having to evacuate, and coming home to find nothing there. The place where you raised your children and created so many memories _ gone. This is the reality for far too many New Jerseyans."
Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell said a storm surge flooded the Passaic Valley treatment plant, shutting down the system that handles sewage from 1.5 million customers in northern New Jersey. New Jersey Transit, which has a daily ridership of nearly 1 million people, suffered flooded tunnels and crippled hubs. He said PSEG, the state's largest utility, had more than $100 million in damage to its infrastructure.
In Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said nearly a third of at least 3,000 homes are uninhabitable.
Congress, facing tight budget constraints with the fiscal cliff budget talks, seems to be in no mood to move quickly to approve additional spending.
Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy have joined forces in a regional effort to land nearly $83 billion in federal aid to recover from Sandy.
Cuomo said at a New York City briefing Thursday that he is working with committee chairs in Congress to ensure that aid for the three states will be "flexible" so that they can better use the funds where they are most needed.
Cuomo, a Democrat, is asking for $42 billion for repairs and preventive measures. Christie, a Republican, is seeking $37 billion for recovery and rebuilding. Malloy, a Democrat, says Connecticut's bill is $3.5 billion.
The massive requests come at a time when Congress and President Barack Obama are trying to drastically reduce the nation's deficit, weighing spending cuts along with tax cuts that are soon to expire next year.
Cuomo said he's working closely with Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, because getting aid approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives may be "trickier" than in the Democrat-led Senate.
King told The Associated Press that the cost won't have to be offset by spending cuts as part of the tense budget negotiations. He said Congress is awaiting a proposal from Obama on disaster aid.
"I'm reasonably optimistic," said King, who is pushing for New York's proposal in Congress.
Malloy said the aid is also needed in Connecticut to protect against future storms.
"While our state was not impacted as severely as New York or New Jersey during Storm Sandy, we have seen substantial damage from three storms now that occurred in a little more than a year's time," he said.
AP Writers MICHAEL GORMLEY in Albany, New York, and Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.