Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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February 1, 2013

Individual assistance — FEMA guidelines should be modified

Legislation recently passed by both houses of Congress, and now awaiting the signature of President Barack Obama, would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reassess guidelines used to evaluate requests for individual assistance following disasters such as last year’s derecho storm.

It’s a necessary and logical measure that should be signed into law by Obama. The legislation was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., after residents of the Mountain State suffered extensive financial losses as a result of extended power outages following the powerful June 2012 wind storm.

Thousands in our area — including hard hit Mercer County — went for more than a week without electricity last summer in the midst of a stifling heat wave following the derecho storm. In addition to property damage, many families lost weeks worth of food stored in their refrigerators as a result of the prolonged power outage. Across the state, Rahall estimated the losses at “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

However, because those types of losses did not explicitly fall within FEMA’s guidelines, the state’s request for individual assistance to help households with home repairs and personal property damage was initially denied by FEMA. A subsequent appeal was granted but narrowed in scope from 24 counties to only four. Similar individual assistance requests to help West Virginia residents impacted by Superstorm Sandy last October also were rejected by FEMA.

Rahall said the new legislation is designed to ensure federal disaster assistance programs are reaching those they are designed to help and are not stuck behind bureaucratic red tape. “I hope that this overdue review of FEMA’s individual assistance program leads to a more streamlined and consistent response when future emergencies arise,” the veteran West Virginia lawmaker said earlier this week.

Under the language that Rahall authored, FEMA will be encouraged to apply greater flexibility and use more objective criteria when assessing disaster assistance requests, including losses that result from extended power outages. FEMA would have one year to review, update, and revise through rulemaking the factors the agency considers when measuring the severity, magnitude and impact of a disaster.

Rahall’s legislation makes sense, and should be signed into law by Obama. There were many families across our region last summer who were expecting help from FEMA — and this newspaper received several calls from individuals wanting to know how to contact FEMA following the derecho storm. That’s why clearing up the red tape that prohibited FEMA from providing assistance last summer will be critical when the next disaster hits.

Rahall’s measure should be promptly signed into law.

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