By Amanda Iacone | Virginia Statehouse News
RICHMOND — Waiting for federal disaster assistance was not an option for David Whitlock.
Whitlock was afraid someone would get hurt if the wall tumbled.
The wall needed repairs immediately.
Fortunately, Whitlock said he had the $13,000 for the repairs, and his store stayed open while the contractor rebuilt the wall.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency “is going to be spread pretty thin,” Whitlock said. “It’s going to be pretty hard for FEMA to do anything for us. People with houses in the community suffered a greater loss than we did. I hope they can get some help.”
The extra money is needed to help communities throughout Virginia recover from Hurricane Irene and also could help as many as seven counties fix the damage caused by the earthquake.
Hurricane Irene and spring tornadoes in the Midwest and South have stretched FEMA’s budget, and the agency is expected to run out of cash early next week if Congress doesn’t act.
“There are people who are suffering in a big way right now, and they need to know that FEMA and the disaster relief monies will be there for them,” U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-7th Congressional District, said Friday.
“We are told that FEMA will run dry and the Disaster Relief Fund will have no money by next week. That is why the House acted. The president made his request for the Disaster Relief Fund, we doubled that request and did it in a responsible manner,” Cantor said.
Cantor has said repeatedly that the any increases in FEMA funding must be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
State officials want FEMA to provide trailers, so families can remain on their property, and their children could attend their local school during repairs. For now, families continue living in those damaged houses, Cline said.
The state has sought federal disaster assistance from FEMA to help Louisa County homeowners and businesses seek grants or low-interest loans to pay for repairs.
Damage estimates from Hurricane Irene continue to rise, nearing $300 million statewide.
Estimated hurricane damage to private property totals $87 million plus another $130 million in agriculture-related damage. Local governments incurred an estimated $52 million from damage to public property and costs to open shelters, pay overtime and take other protective actions, according to the state Department of Emergency Management.
The state incurred $16 million in damage and disaster response costs. Those costs include damage to state-maintained roads, bridges and buildings, plus employee overtime and tree removal, said Bob Spieldenner, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Management.
FEMA has agreed to provide disaster relief funding to 39 cities and counties stretching from Richmond to Virginia Beach. No locality has received any money yet, but generally FEMA will reimburse localities up to 75 percent of the costs related to the hurricane response, Spieldenner said.
Assistance in question
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Whether FEMA can make good on its promises of cash and housing assistance remains to be seen, but state officials’ hands are tied until Congress finds a way.
Cline said the federal government must pay for disaster responses when communities qualify for the help.
“Even though it might be late coming, there’s that possibility of course, but I have no doubt that the federal government will honor its obligations,” Cline said. “That’s a bill that just has to be paid.”
But state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, said it’s far from certain whether those dollars will make it to Virginia localities and homeowners.
“It’s a sad commentary when we find ourselves faced with destruction of property and the flooding damage that’s taken place that the federal government cannot respond. And (the federal government) shouldn’t have to borrow money every time they have to respond to any incident. They should have it set aside. That’s the frustration with what’s going on right now,” he said.
And people in Louisa will be hurt the most, Watkins said.
There is little the state can do to help communities as Virginia is strapped for cash as well, said Sen. Chuck Colgan, D-Prince William, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Virginia has cut $6 billion from the budget since the start of the recession in 2008 and tax collections remain below 2007 levels. And the state will have to come up with the money to pay its own expenses related to the hurricane.
“We’re going to depend on the feds to come up with the money,” Colgan said. “When all is said and done, they will. (The federal government) might give you some red tape and heartburn, but they will come through.”