U.S. aid for winter storms can be less than expected

Posted: March 03, 2014

The winter storms so far have cost Northampton Township taxpayers $600,000 - double what the town had budgeted and enough of an economic toll to delay plans to repave some roads.

So the Bucks County community calculated what it could get if the federal government decides to help. The answer: $20,000, at most.

"I'll never turn the money down," Township Manager Robert Pellegrino said. "But it's not going to matter in the grand scheme of things."

Unlike devastating floods or hurricanes, federal aid for winter-related storms - no matter how disruptive - is often far less generous. Despite enduring millions of dollars in unexpected winter weather expenses this year, area towns must prove they were incapable of handling the weather - a high bar in a state such as Pennsylvania.

"Communities that see a regular winter ultimately bear the responsibility," said Peter Herrick Jr., a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "With a flood, there's not a whole lot you can do. You can't get a bucket loader and push the water away."

Last week, some Philadelphia suburbs examined their storm costs in hopes of getting some federal aid. And while the region's local governments could potentially share several million dollars, the money would be significantly less than in previous years. The state, which is still assessing its total storm costs, has yet to decide whether it suffered enough damage to ask FEMA for money, state officials said. And there is no guarantee that the agency will award any.

FEMA would be limited in what it could hand out this year because the region's storms failed to break individual snowfall records. That means the money towns spent on plowing and salting roads, even for days on end, wouldn't count in the federal government's algorithm for assistance.

"We sort of term it 'No dough for snow,' " said Robert J. Kagel, Chester County's deputy director for emergency management.

The last time Pennsylvania got money for snow-removal costs was after the winter of 2010, when big storms broke individual snow-total records and more than 25 counties in Pennsylvania shared about $25 million.

Townships this year are constrained mostly to counting dollars spent on life-saving measures. Those include clearing roads of fallen trees and downed wires, plowing snow for an ambulance, or setting up an emergency shelter.

Philadelphia's four suburban counties were expected to report those costs to state officials by Friday.

Tom Sullivan, Montgomery County's public safety director, said the county incurred about $3.2 million in such expenses. Kagel said Chester County tallied a similar number. He added that he will also try to get federal assistance for two homes considered destroyed, and several seriously damaged, by the storms, some by falling trees.

Damage estimates were unavailable for Bucks and Delaware Counties.

Pennsylvania still must show the federal government that it suffered more than $17 million in total damages before the state can qualify for aid. Even then, FEMA aid would hardly fill local budget gaps left by February's storms.

For instance, the $20,000 in potential FEMA aid would do little to make up for the $400,000-plus Northampton has spent on salt to date, said Pellegrino, the township manager.

The FEMA assistance would do nothing for people who missed work or paid for a hotel while their homes sat cold and powerless.

Larry Comunale, the township manager in Montgomery County's Lower Gwynedd Township, said a half dozen people called last month to ask if FEMA would reimburse them for their hotel stays. Herrick, the FEMA spokesman, said the answer is likely no because the damage in Pennsylvania hasn't reached a high enough level of severity.

Jeff Havengna, 46, who lives in Chester County's West Caln Township, said some kind of individual assistance should be available.

He said the storm forced him and his wife to miss three days of work to stay home with their four kids. They lacked power for more than five days, although they had a small generator.

"It's kind of disheartening as a taxpayer and as someone who's working hard paying bills not to get any kind of assistance," he said.


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118

@Ben_Finley

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