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New Jersey Governor Wants More Hurricane Disaster Relief For Hard-Hit Counties

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been nearly a week since remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New Jersey, killing dozens of people and leaving behind flood and wind damage that many residents are still trying to fix. The White House has approved federal assistance for six counties in the state, but Democratic Governor Phil Murphy says that is not enough. He wants the federal government to expand the disaster declaration. Governor Murphy has been touring the hardest-hit parts of the state and joins us now.

Welcome.

PHIL MURPHY: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just share some of what you've been seeing as you've been traveling the state? How bad is the damage?

MURPHY: Oh, it's bad. I was with - I had the great honor to host President Biden today. We toured a community called Manville, one of many that I visited - just absolute devastation and destruction - private homes, small businesses, infrastructure. We are extremely grateful for the president's support for that declaration of disaster for those six counties, and we are working very hard to get a number of more counties added to that list. But this was historic at every level.

CHANG: Let's talk about those disaster declarations for six counties. I know that you want to expand that. What specific needs are you seeing in other counties that you think the federal government is overlooking right now?

MURPHY: No, I wouldn't say they're overlooking. In fact, FEMA and - right from the administrator who was with me today in New Jersey right on down has been great. They're actually in, I think, four counties today trying to make their assessment. And the key difference between just an emergency declaration, which we got immediately from the president, and the major disaster declaration is there's money available for individuals, not just for reimbursing counties, municipalities or the state for their expenses. So it's a game-changer. It opens up a whole new broad sources of money from the federal government.

CHANG: Right.

MURPHY: So we need it in all counties.

CHANG: Did you press this case with the president directly today when you were with him that...

MURPHY: We did.

CHANG: ...He wants to expand the disaster declarations?

MURPHY: Yeah.

CHANG: And what was his response?

MURPHY: With great respect, we did. And, again, this is a guy who's been there at every step of the way for us. I cannot say enough good things about him and the FEMA administrator and their teams. He was very - they're very much open-minded to this. They've got people on the ground, literally. I'm in one of those counties. Essex County is one of those that needs to be added to the list. FEMA is in this county as we speak. So they're doing all the things they should be doing. This is a work in progress when they named those first six. And we just need them to add another four or five to that.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's talk about preventing this kind of damage down the road with future hurricanes and flooding. I mean, we know that hurricanes and flooding are more severe now because of climate change. But next month, I understand that New Jersey is going to lower its gas tax. Let me ask you, shouldn't the state be figuring out ways to reduce reliance on cars that run on fuel?

MURPHY: Well, we're doing that. I mean, we have a massive investment in electric vehicles, incentives to get folks to buy electric vehicles, charging stations where we've got an enormous investment. We had a huge mismatch when I became governor. We were top 10 in electric vehicles but bottom five in charging stations. So we're going at that hard. The gas tax is a formula. It was a formula that was put in place before I got here.

CHANG: Right. Why lower it, especially now, given all the devastation that we're seeing in your city?

MURPHY: It's based on usage. It's based literally on a formula over the past 12 months that, every August, the treasurer in our state is required to recalibrate. But the key is we've got an investment that's historic in electric vehicles and clean energy more broadly. We're the most densely populated state in the nation, and so getting climate resiliency and infrastructure and a clean economy - a green economy, rather - getting all that right is mission No. 1 in many respects for us.

CHANG: I want to ask about another thing. You know, in New Jersey, it's not just the coastal areas that are dealing...

MURPHY: Right.

CHANG: ...With this kind of major flooding. It happens inland, too. So do you agree with scientists in your state who say now that it would be wise to permanently relocate people away from highly flood prone areas? Is that something you think the state should have a plan for?

MURPHY: It has to be a consideration. We had this conversation with the president today and several mayors and members of our congressional delegation and administration. It has to be one of the weapons we use. Ironically, Ailsa, in this storm, in Ida, our shore was not impacted really at all. This was all inland, in rivers and streams and other bodies of water that raged at levels - you know, we had a month's worth of rain within two or three hours. And we know this is going to be the future - more frequency, more intensity. And we have to make sure we're getting out ahead of this and we're not dragged into the future by it.

CHANG: That is Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

Thank you very much for joining us, and we wish you the best of luck to you and your state in the recovery process.

MURPHY: Thanks for having me, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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