HIGHLANDS — Millions of dollars in federal aid for those rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy will begin flowing into New Jersey this week as Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced federal approval of a $1.83 billion recovery plan.

Christie and Donovan made the announcement in a joint press conference Monday, noting that the plan is a “work in progress” and will be adapted as the state sees unmet needs.

Christie said that homeowners who want to be eligible for grants of up to $150,000 must register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency by Wednesday, which is the deadline to apply for disaster relief through FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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“If you have a problem out there, and you haven’t applied for aid yet, then the federal government doesn’t know about you either,” Christie said.

Among the major components of the recovery plan are two grants for homeowners — as much as $150,000 to raise or restore storm-damaged houses and as much as $10,000 to “resettle” owner-occupied homes in neighborhoods that have been substantially damaged. The program also includes $260 million in grants to businesses and $50 million to match FEMA money for infrastructure improvements or repairs.

The plan was originally prepared by the state Department of Community Affairs and approved, with some changes, by HUD. The most substantive change made to the plan was shifting more money to help renters in the long-term. Four programs create grants and low-cost loans for developers and small landlords to build or restore damaged apartments for low- to moderate-income residents, according to a review of the plan. One of the shifts included reducing one grant program for homeowners by $20 million and allocating that to the renter programs, according to the plan.

Monday’s announcement comes on the six month anniversary of Sandy making landfall near Brigantine as a northeaster with hurricane force winds. The storm set records for the lowest recorded barometric pressure in New Jersey. More than 56,000 New Jersey homes and apartments suffered major to severe flood damage in the storm, with the worst structural damage occurring in Ocean and Monmouth counties. Some northern Ocean County towns, such as Mantoloking and the Camp Osborne section of Brick Township, remain much as they were after the storm, with houses in ruins.

While damage was not as catastrophic in South Jersey, flooding in towns such as Margate, Ventnor, Atlantic City and Brigantine damaged more than half of the housing stock in some neighborhoods, according to new information included in the plan. Among the most affected residents in Atlantic City were low-income renters, many of whom have struggled to rebuild their lives after the storm.

Christie said the application process for homeowners and renters will be rolled out to the public in May, but much of the decisions will be based on what has already been submitted through FEMA in order to reduce the amount of paperwork homeowners need to file.

Because the homeowner grants are meant to fill unmet needs — meaning costs not covered by insurance or federal aid already paid out — Christie warned that grant applicants will need to show proof of costs, payments already received and damage assessments. Eligibility critiera in the plan notes that some programs require a damage assessment already done by FEMA representatives.

By using the FEMA databases, Donovan said, the state also will be able to reach out to people who registered for disaster aid to let them know they may be eligible for the new programs.

Businesses will have a less strenuous application process and the money for those programs is likely to start getting paid out by the end of May, Christie said.

“All of these (dates) are flexible, and I’m not going to be held to a particular date because we’ve never done this before,” Christie said. “These are our best estimates.”

HUD learned from mistakes it made following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where aid workers walked around and essentially handed out checks to residents, who then took the money and rebuilt elsewhere, Christie said. While specific fraud prevention guidelines still have yet to be laid out in the approved plan, Donovan and Christie said the programs ultimately would be audited and there are checks in place to ensure the money is spent appropriately.

One of those checks, Christie said, was establishing a vetted pool of contractors to complete the work. When residents are approved for grants, only those contractors on the list can bid for the job and the state will pay those contractors directly, Christie said. “That way we know the work is getting done here in New Jersey, homes are being rebuilt here in New Jersey, and we’re not just handing checks to people to move someplace else.”

For more information on Sandy aid programs

The Department of Community Affairs, which is administering the program, has posted numerous fact sheets on the programs on its website, including information for homeowners and business owners for preparing to apply for the aid. The state also has posted details for how contractors can apply to be on the approved list. The information is at www.sandyhelp.nj.gov

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Follow Sarah Watson on Twitter @acpresssarah

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