Officials in New Jersey greeted with enthusiasm this week the news that federal money will be available to help their communities recover from last month's punishing weather.

"I guess the general theme is, Santa Claus is coming to town," said Frank McCall, Cape May County's director of emergency management.

The aid will be headed to the southern Jersey Shore - where a November storm eroded beaches, battered bulkheads, and washed away sand dunes - after President Obama declared it a disaster area this week.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had authorized Atlantic, Cape May, and Ocean Counties to receive funds for the repair of damaged public infrastructure and the reimbursement of emergency-response activities.

"The damage was strong," said Ventnor City Administrator Sandra Biagi. "We couldn't say enough thanks that it was recognized for the disaster it was."

Many of the dunes designed to keep ocean water out of the residential and business areas along Absecon Island have been seriously damaged, said Ed Conover, deputy emergency management coordinator for Atlantic County.

"Potentially, when the next big storm comes through, those dunes aren't going to be there to protect those structures, and we could end up with serious damage. . . . There's nothing in place there to slow the water down," he said, adding that officials would aim to finish repairs before the start of next year's tourist season.

The disaster designation, requested by Gov. Corzine, comes as a result of severe floods, rain, and wind from Tropical Storm Ida and a nor'easter between Nov. 11 and 15. Preliminary assessments of damage total $49 million, but officials will conduct a more extensive survey before determining the exact amount of aid.

Assistance will go toward state and local governments and some nonprofits, FEMA said.

The cost to Atlantic County of removing debris and otherwise responding to the storm was well over $100,000, according to Conover.

Cape May County faces similar problems.

"It looks like we're in trouble," McCall said of the area's coastal infrastructure. As a result, officials in the hard-hit communities of Avalon, Ocean City, Strathmere, Stone Harbor, and North Wildwood are "delighted" by the disaster declaration, he said.

Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com

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