A couple walks past destruction from superstorm Sandy on Route 35 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey (file photo)
WASHINGTON -- The House on Friday passed the first large aid package for victims of the deadly Superstorm Sandy that hit the country's most densely populated region two months ago and led to new concerns about climate change.
The vote was 354-67. All the "no" votes came from Republicans.
The $9.7 billion measure would clear the way to pay flood insurance claims; a vote on Sandy aid by the previous, Republican-controlled House of Representatives was put off earlier this week. New Jersey's famously outspoken Republican governor, Chris Christie, erupted in response at his own party and joined New York's Democratic governor in calling the move a "disgrace."
Trying to keep calm, House Speaker John Boehner assured angry lawmakers that votes on the states' entire request for more than $60 billion in aid would be held by the middle of the month.
Sandy was blamed for 120 deaths in several states, most in New York and New Jersey, and it was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Lawmakers have complained that it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billion in aid for Katrina.
The storm ripped apart the famed New Jersey shore and parts of the New York City area coastline, leaving thousands homeless.
If the House of Representatives approves the flood insurance proposal as expected Friday, the Senate planned to follow with a likely uncontested vote later in the day.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned that the National Flood Insurance Program will run out of money next week if Congress doesn't provide additional borrowing authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.
Northeastern lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm.
"People are waiting to be paid," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican, whose district includes the casino-filled Atlantic City and many other coastal communities. "They're sleeping in rented rooms on cots somewhere, and they're not happy. They want to get their lives back on track, and it's cold outside. They see no prospect of relief."
About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been filed, FEMA officials said, and most have yet to be closed out. Many flood victims have received only partial payments.
The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.
The flood insurance measure is the first phase of a proposed Sandy aid package. The House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recovery money. Senate action on that measure is expected the following week.
More than $2 billion in federal money has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by the storm.