Hurricane Sandy made a mess of the Jersey Shore and neighboring states, causing $71 billion in property damage. The federal government responded with about $60 billion in disaster relief, but in some ways the help residents got in rebuilding created another mess.

Four years after the storm is a good time to start planning to provide relief more effectively. We think that probably means a much simpler program that gives owners of damaged properties more freedom to pursue the options best for them.

Repair and rebuilding was assisted by the federal $1.1 billion Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program, administered by the state Department of Community Affairs.

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About 40,000 primary homes were damaged by the storm, and the owners of about 15,000 of those applied for help from the RREM program. The program accepted 7,600 of them to receive some form of help.

But of those, only 4,300 have completed their repairs and construction — after four years. Another 1,400 have returned to their homes anyway, living there while reconstruction continues.

That leaves about 7,000 homeowners who sought help and got … nothing? Many reportedly simply gave up trying to work their way through complex and intertwined aid and insurance programs. Others were inappropriately told they didn’t qualify for help.

Worse still, the state is obligated under federal rules to recover RREM funds that duplicated other benefits such as insurance, exceeded the necessary repairs or rebuilding, or were used for ineligible expenses. So about 170 homeowners were told they must give money back, and 120 agreed to pay back a total of $2 million.

The drawn-out administration of help has required lots of temporary patches, including repeated renewals of expiring building permits and legislation to head off foreclosures of storm-damaged homes.

The problems with the storm-relief effort for homeowners go well beyond delays and ineffectiveness.

The program pushed a goal, for example, of raising homes on piles above worst-case flood levels. But since repeated flooding makes an area unlivable for lots of reasons, a better answer might be using payments to encourage people to relocate.

Owners of damaged homes were also denied the option — even when it made far more sense or even cost less — to tear down the existing dwelling and replace it. That’s the kind of baffling, self-defeating requirement that only government bureaucracy imposes.

Storm-damage relief would be much quicker and more effective if government simply assessed the damage, determined the owner’s level of need and wrote a check based on both. That would let the homeowners, who have the greatest interest in a good outcome, decide whether to repair, raise, demolish and rebuild, or sell and leave. We can’t see how the outcomes from that could possibly be worse than what the federal and state governments have done.

Sure, a simple payment scheme may be too simple. But the optimal approach has to be a simpler relief program that also helps reduce the unsustainable excess of property in coastal flood zones. State and federal officials should get working on it now. Never know when the next storm will hit.

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