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Clearing the Way for Emergency Help
On June 29, a rare derecho storm hit our State, damaging homes and businesses and cutting off power for an extended period of time, leaving most West Virginians without air conditioning, refrigeration, or any of the other modern conveniences of life upon which we have come to depend.
Yet, as we have done so many times before, West Virginians rallied together in the face of adversity. And, with the help of our first responders, National Guard, and volunteer organizations, neighborhoods and communities slowly began the process of getting back on their feet.
In order to aid in that recovery, I, along with the rest of the West Virginia Congressional Delegation, advocated a major disaster declaration, in order to open access to Federal assistance programs. I was at the White House and discussed with the President the needs of West Virginia residents and businesses and urged expeditious action on our State’s disaster request. I also invited our State’s Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Jimmy Gianato, to testify at a hearing held before my Committee – the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which holds jurisdiction over FEMA.
Subsequently, on July 23, the President issued a major disaster declaration that covered forty-five West Virginia counties – including Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln, Boone, Logan, Mingo, Mercer, McDowell, Wyoming, Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas, Webster, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Summers, and Monroe – clearing the way for Federal aid to be made available for emergency work and the repair or replacement of publicly owned facilities, as well as for hazard mitigation projects in all 55 counties to protect against the impact of future storms and power outages.
When disaster assistance for individuals to repair damaged homes and replace personal property was denied, I joined the Governor and the Congressional Delegation in appealing to the President and FEMA, and was pleased that our State’s request was later approved, albeit for fewer counties. West Virginia’s successful appeal was welcome news for residents, but it was a lengthy and strenuous process that suggests that there is much room for improvement.
The derecho and subsequent storms that struck on June 29th took a terrible toll on West Virginia residents and businesses. I toured several communities in southern West Virginia following the storm, and I witnessed firsthand the widespread damage to homes and businesses that resulted from the high and sudden winds. I also saw the dangers posed, due to the extended power outage, to elderly and vulnerable West Virginians who were without basic necessities like food, water, medicine, and oxygen. Business owners were forced to close their doors, breadwinners missed work, and significant financial losses were incurred due to spoiled food and disrupted transportation and banking services.
But because these losses did not neatly fit into the scenarios envisioned by the law, FEMA’s response to West Virginia’s request for disaster assistance was needlessly delayed and narrowed in scope.
The FEMA Reauthorization Act recently passed by the House of Representatives includes language, at my request, that encourages greater flexibility and more objective criteria in the guidelines that FEMA uses to assess disaster assistance requests, including losses that result from extended power outages. Under the legislation, FEMA would have one year to review, update, and revise through rulemaking the factors the Agency considers when measuring the severity, magnitude, and impact of a disaster.
The sensible and timely review of FEMA’s Individual Assistance guidelines, which the House has now called for, will help to ensure that our disaster assistance programs are in fact quickly reaching those individuals they are designed to help and that needed aid is not locked behind rigid and inflexible bureaucratic rules.
I hope that this overdue update to FEMA’s Individual Assistance program leads to a more streamlined and consistent response when future emergencies arise.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s 3rd District
For more information contact: Diane Luensmann (202) 225-3452