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Billions of dollars in damages and not enough in the bank account. That's the situation federal officials find themselves in after Hurricane Sandy. The White House says it will send an emergency funding request to Capitol Hill this week.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, there's a debate in Congress over how that money should be spent.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The damage from what was dubbed Superstorm Sandy was enormous and widespread. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York testified before some of her Senate colleagues today, on the tally from her state alone.

SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: What we know so far, we have - over 300,000 homes seriously damaged; more than 265,000 businesses impacted; about 238,000 have filed their FEMA claims to date, and thousands of New Yorkers are still homeless. We've estimated our damages are upwards of $32.8 billion and this was a conservative estimate.

NAYLOR: New Jersey has a similar tally, Connecticut a bit less. Combined, the Northeastern states are asking for upwards of $80 billion in federal aid for storm related damage. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan is the Obama administration's point man on Sandy. He wouldn't say today exactly how much the administration wants from Congress. But Donovan said at least a portion of the money will go to build up the region's defenses against future super storms.

SECRETARY SHAUN DONOVAN: We want to ensure that homes that were damaged or lost are rebuilt, businesses restored and communities made whole. But we also want to build back stronger, smarter, safer, and more resiliently - a 21st century response.

NAYLOR: Donovan told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that building up such resilience involves making a lot of decisions now, before rebuilding gets under way.

DONOVAN: From the kind of design and materials we should use to rebuild boardwalks to whether gas stations should be generator capable, to how or whether to rebuild in certain areas.

NAYLOR: Several Senators on the panel talked about the power grid and whether it would make sense to pay to bury power lines underground to protect them from falling trees. A good idea in some areas but FEMA administrator Craig Fugate warned that in New York City, placing things underground led to other problems.

CRAIG FUGATE: If I seem to remember, everything in Manhattan was underground; including a hospital's entire imaging unit and emergency room that were flooded by salt water and destroyed.

NAYLOR: Fugate says the administration has some $4.8 billion left in its disaster relief fund, money used to pay for immediate assistance. And while the White House and lawmakers have their hands full with the impending year end tax hikes and spending cuts, some in Congress want to provide the states just a small amount of the rebuilding money now, and a bigger chunk later. But Donovan says such a down payment would cause hardships.

DONOVAN: Families, small businesses, entire communities are waiting for a decision about what resources are available to help them rebuild. A down payment simply means that those families and those communities are going to be waiting for months or longer, to be able to get on with their lives.

NAYLOR: Nor does Donovan believe the disaster aid should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, and most Democrats seem to agree. It's unclear whether Republicans will go along.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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