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Fickle FEMA?

State politicians ask agency to reconsider denial of individual assistance.

Virginia politicians are asking FEMA to change its mind. On Friday, Governor Timothy Kaine sent a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to “reconsider your decision to deny federal assistance to the residents of Virginia.”

On Tuesday, Republican Senators John Warner and George Allen released a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff with a similar message. The same day, Rep. James Moran (D-8th) wrote to David Paulison, the director of FEMA requesting that he “reverse the decision to deny federal individual assistance.”

FEMA spokesman Dan Martinez said the agency would re-evaluate its decision based on new information presented by the state’s officials.

Kaine’s letter included a graph entitled “Social Demographic Characteristics of the Huntington Community in Relation to Fairfax, Virgina.”

The data from the 2000 U.S. Census demonstrated that Huntington’s median income was only 2/3 of the county average when the census was taken. In addition, Huntington homeowners dedicated more than 35 percent of their income to normal housing costs, more than the county’s average of 19 percent.

“The special demographic characteristics of the Huntington neighborhood underscore the need for financial assistance,” Kaine wrote. “The residents are under significant financial stress and unable to take on the additional costs of disaster recovery and unlikely to qualify for loans.”

James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman, said the most telling statistic would be “the amount of insurance in the area.” Weeks ago, Virginia released information to FEMA saying about 2/3 of the homeowners did not have flood insurance.

McIntyre said FEMA also bases its decision on the ability of state and local governments to pay for aid. “State and local resources must be overwhelmed before we can step in with federal assistance,” he said.

THE LETTERS from Warner, Allen and Moran touched on the characterization by a FEMA spokesman of Huntington as “affluent.” The letters denounced this designation and demanded to know the reasons behind FEMA’s decision to deny aid.

“My office has been unable to obtain any documentation of FEMA’s decision making process,” Moran’s letter read, “and has been repeatedly told that this information is privileged and not available to the public”

“The basis for FEMA’s denial here should be made known,” the letter continued.

McIntyre disagreed with this characterization of FEMA’s process. “We’re being extremely transparent in this,” he said. He argued that keeping aspects of the process secret was necessary to keep it fair.

“[There are] predecisional things that have to remain closed so everyone won’t know how to beat the system,” he said.

But in a press release accompanying his letter, Moran suggested that the system may have been implicitly unfair. “Far too often,” he is quoted as saying, “under this administration, these policy decisions are made for political rather than substantive reasons.”

In response, McIntyre said most of the work done by FEMA was performed by career FEMA employees with no political bias. “The process is fair and not politically motivated,” he said. “The people that compile the data and put the data into a recommendation are not political appointees.”

KAINE spokesman Delacey Skinner said Kaine hoped to sway FEMA decision-makers with the demographic statistics included in his letter. “In order to appeal you have to have new information,” she said. “That’s what the presentation is. He is very hopeful that they will take that into consideration and grant the assistance.”

But Moran’s aide Bumgardner was less optimistic about the efficacy of the demographic data. “I know the commonwealth is providing additional information, but not a glut of additional information,” he said. He credited politics, not demographics, with the power to change FEMA’s mind.

“There’s going to be political pressure put on them. That’s the only reason they’re going to reconsider.” But he conceded that FEMA was not fickle, and successful appeals were “really, really rare, which is why it’s important that both Republican Senators are involved.”

He credited the citizens of Huntington with rallying their politicians. “They really have started to organize very well and I think they have been effective thus far.”