WILKES-BARRE — After being denied again by President Donald Trump and FEMA, Gov. Tom Wolf is upset and legislators are searching for a way to alleviate the severe financial impact of the devastating March snowstorm.
Wolf on Tuesday announced his appeal for a federal disaster declaration was rejected. It would have brought critical financial assistance to nine counties impacted by the Stella storm that dropped up to 2 feet of the white stuff.
“At this point, we have exhausted our options for filing an appeal through the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” Wolf said. “It’s unfortunate that the president didn’t grant our request for a declaration, and the citizens of Northeast Pennsylvania will be the ones to suffer the financial impact of this decision.”
The governor made the initial request for a disaster declaration in May and filed an appeal earlier this month in hopes of federal funding for local, county and state governments, as well as certain eligible non-profits in Luzerne, Bradford, Lackawanna, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Northumberland, Pike, Wayne and Montour counties.
According to the letter signed by Acting FEMA Administrator Robert J. Fenton, “After a thorough review of all the information contained in your initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original findings that the impact from this event is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration. Therefore, I must inform you that your appeal for a major disaster declaration is denied.”
A federal disaster declaration for public assistance would provide reimbursement of up to 75 percent of costs incurred on eligible expenses for the most expensive 48-hour period.
In his appeal, Wolf used Wilkes-Barre as the prime example of how the storm impacted municipal finances. Wolf said the city “responsibly budgeted” $370,000 for winter storm costs, but it could not have foreseen a storm the size of Stella.
“The resulting snow had to be removed from 127 miles of city streets, and moved to remote locations,” Wolf wrote. “This resulted in over $1 million in fixed costs; not including revenue collections lost from earned income taxes, business privilege taxes, and parking due to the inability to report to work and access the city. Without supplemental assistance, the city will be unable to adequately sustain, protect, respond to and recover from disaster emergencies.”
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said from the start of the reimbursement process, “an uphill battle was being fought.” That was due to the fact the threshold for federal relief takes into account storm-related damages across the entire state, not only Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Unfortunately, current law does not give as much weight to the local impact of storms as it should,” Barletta said. “Our experience in Northeast Pennsylvania is a perfect example of why we need to reform how we assess disasters.”
Barletta said he co-sponsored the Disaster Declaration Improvement Act, which would require the federal government to consider the intensity of a disaster on a particular area when determining the need for federal assistance.
The bill passed the House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
The legislation would give greater weight to the localized impact of a disaster when determining the need for federal assistance and require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take into account the cumulative impact of multiple storms.
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, said while the decision to deny is consistent with past FEMA policy, it underscores the need for Congress to look for new ways to help struggling cities and counties.
State Sens. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, and Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, issued a joint statement on the decision.
“After Winter Storm Stella crippled Luzerne County and most of Northeastern Pennsylvania, we find ourselves in a position where funding is needed,” the statement read. “Budget cuts have zeroed out funding for the program.”
Other lawmakers who commented:
• Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township: “It’s disappointing President Trump refused to help our neighbors in Northeastern Pennsylvania who suffered through a record winter snowfall, some of whom couldn’t leave their homes for days because the roads were impassable. It’s unexpected and natural budget-busting events like these when local governments look for help from the state and federal governments.”
• Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre: “President Trump’s decision to deny Gov. Wolf’s appeal for the federal funding for our counties severely affected by the record snowstorm was disappointing to say the least. The severity of the record snowstorm inflicted abnormal costs and prolonged closures of roads, businesses and schools which drained community budgets and created considerable hardship for countless people and communities.”
• U.S. Senator Bob Casey, D-Scranton: “Northeastern Pennsylvania experienced a significant storm and we need the Administration to have our backs, not continue to turn down legitimate requests for aid. I am disappointed that the Administration failed to stand up for Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.