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State officials seek faster storm relief aid

West Virginia Reps. Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito urged federal emergency officials Tuesday to expedite disaster relief funds for West Virginians affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials appeared before the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Tuesday morning to offer testimony on their Sandy response efforts.

Rahall is the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Capito is one of 32 Republican members.

Both said they appreciated aid the agency has offered since the June 29 derecho and Hurricane Sandy, but they were also critical of delays in granting financial assistance directly to West Virginia families. 

President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for 18 West Virginia counties hit hardest by the storm last week. The declaration will allow funds to flow to local governments for Sandy repair and response efforts.

However, FEMA has yet to decide if those 18 counties will receive what's known as individual assistance, which is given directly to residents who suffered property damages as a result of the storm.

"More than a month after the storm, West Virginian families are still waiting for a decision on whether individual assistance will be made available to help them repair broken roofs, fix affected businesses, and recoup lost wages," Rahall said.

"Our residents should not be subject to a drawn out and bureaucratic process or left to wonder how much of this storm's terrible burden they will have to bear on their own," he said.

Capito said residents and businesses did a good job helping one another through the storms, but more help is needed.

"Many areas were extremely damaged by the powerful storms and many small businesses and families are still waiting to hear if they'll receive individual disaster assistance," she said. 

She urged FEMA officials to quickly make a decision regarding individual assistance grants.

It's not the first time this year state representatives have criticized FEMA for delays.

FEMA initially denied individual assistance to state residents following the derecho, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin successfully appealed that decision.

On Sept. 19, FEMA announced it would grant individual disaster assistance to residents of Kanawha, Fayette, Raleigh and Nicholas counties - areas that were hit hardest by the storm.

FEMA later expanded aid to 16 others - Boone, Cabell, Clay, Greenbrier, Jackson, Lincoln, Mason, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Monroe, Pocahontas, Roane, Tyler, Webster and Wood counties - on Oct. 22.

In September, Rahall added language to FEMA's latest funding bill that encourages greater flexibility and more objective criteria in the guidelines the agency uses to assess disaster assistance requests.

Rahall's changes to the bill are designed to prevent the long delays the state has experienced for disaster aid grants.

"Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on southern West Virginia following the devastating June derecho," Rahall said. "After both disasters, power outages were long lasting and widespread; property was destroyed, and lives were seriously disrupted, and even lost."

The House of Representatives passed the bill later that month, but it has yet to clear the U.S. Senate.

Also during Tuesday's hearing, FEMA director Craig Fugate told lawmakers there is enough money in the government's disaster relief fund to fund Sandy recovery efforts only until early spring.

Fugate told the House Transportation Committee that the fund has about $4.8 billion left that can be dispersed. So far, the government has distributed about $2 billion in aid to the 11 states struck by the late October storm.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are already pressing for an additional $83 billion.

President Obama is expected to send Congress his request for emergency Sandy recovery aid this week. The initial amount is certain to be less than the states are requesting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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