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Still Waiting for FEMA

President says Fairfax is officially a disaster area, but individuals may not benefit.

18 days after floodwaters from Cameron Run rose into Huntington and caused the evacuation of more than 150 homes, President Bush declared parts of Virginia, including Fairfax County and Alexandria, a federal disaster area.

A recent study shows half of the flooded occupants relied on their basements as a primary room in their house. Two-thirds had no flood insurance.

But residents hoping the July 13 announcement from FEMA will bring them any financial help were disappointed. The FEMA announcement directs money only towards state and local governments.

Supervisor Gerald Hyland said he was furious with the lack of individual assistance. “I’m not happy. I’m not happy at all,” he said. “They’ve made a decision to help the local governments … that doesn’t do anything to help the people that we have been helping, the individuals. To me, that’s the most important part of FEMA assistance.”

Marc LaFountain, a spokesman for the Virginia Office of Emergency Management (VOEM), explained there are three different types of federal disaster assistance: Public Assistance, Hazard Mitigation Assistance and Individual Assistance. The Governor requested all three for Fairfax. The Federal Government granted only the first two.

This is welcome news for local governments that have paid millions to clean debris, repair infrastructure, run emergency operations centers and dedicate employees of many different agencies to helping residents recover. The county will be able to apply for the hazard mitigation allocation to help pay for studies on why the flood happened and for the steps it will have to take to prevent another flood.

But the program that LaFountain said “most people think about when they think about federal assistance,” the Individual Assistance Program, was conspicuously absent from the announcement. This program would allow flood-stricken residents to register a description of their loss with FEMA and be eligible for federal loans and grants

FEMA OFFICIALS requested more information about the extent of the flooding damage before making a decision on individual assistance. At its behest, the VOEM distributed a survey at a community meeting on July 12. They survey asked residents whether they were owners or renters, if they had flood insurance, if they had been able to return home, the extent of the flooding and how they used their basement. They received 30 responses at that meeting.

On Saturday, Department of Health and Fire and Rescue workers took the surveys door-to-door as they assessed homes for mold. They collected an additional 90 responses. The results were submitted to FEMA early this week, said Bob Spieldenner, Director of Public Affairs for the VOEM.

He said the survey showed that only one third of the evacuated residents had flood insurance. More than half of the residents said they used their basements as a “primary part of the residence,” such as a bedroom in which someone slept every night.

Spieldenner added that county officials estimated that on average, residents would not be able to return to their homes for a minimum of sixty days after the flooding.

Spieldenner said he did not know whether these numbers would sway FEMA decision-makers. “You never know,” he said. “We don’t necessarily know what the threshold is that FEMA’s looking for … We’re just hoping that this gives them that … It is kind of a borderline decision for them … For everyone that was impacted, it was a big disaster, but for FEMA overall, it could go either way.”

SPIELDENNER MENTIONED that FEMA had already decided to give Maryland and Delaware small loans for homeowners. That decision suggests a disparity to Mack Rhoades, the chairman of the Huntington Citizen’s Association. “The damage in Huntington was on par with the disaster that occurred in Maryland,” Rhoades said. “I don’t get what FEMA’s up too. It’s really annoying.”

Rhoades said FEMA’s failure to help individuals with ruined houses and no flood insurance was particularly galling because the agency had compounded the problem by failing to provide accurate and up-to-date floodplain maps.

“We don’t even know what the base flood elevation here is,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades said the survey results should convince FEMA that some Huntington residents need more help than the state and county can provide. “It seems to me that they have enough now to come forward and offer some personal assistance, at least to people that don’t have flood insurance.”

But Hyland said he was not optimistic that FEMA would revise its disaster aid to add individual assistance. “I’m going to be pleasantly surprised,” he said, choosing his words carefully. He was impatient with their request for additional information on damage to people’s basements, particularly because it came more than two weeks after the disaster. “It’s an unusual occurrence for them to come back and request this additional information,” he said, “this level of detail.”

He added that if FEMA had needed this information, it could have had it weeks before. “If that FEMA team, when it came in, [told us they needed] that information, we would have done it, dammit. We would have done it if they weren’t going to … We had people waiting around … If I sound frustrated I am. That is not the way the system should work.”

With the survey results in, Huntington residents must wait for FEMA to evaluate them. It will take its recommendation to President Bush, who must ultimately make the decision on any federal aid.