The Obama administration has denied Maryland's request for federal aid for hundreds of Eastern Shore residents affected by superstorm Sandy, prompting an outcry from state officials, who vowed to appeal the decision.
Though the federal government issued a disaster declaration for Maryland and is helping cover costs for repairing public property, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said the storm did not cause enough damage to justify assistance to individuals who lost homes or businesses.
Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall Oct. 29 near Atlantic City, N.J., significantly damaged about four dozen homes in Worcester, Dorchester and Somerset counties and caused less serious damage to hundreds more, federal assessments found.
Overall, the storm caused more than $27 million damage in Maryland.
Days after the storm Gov. Martin O'Malley asked that affected individuals be allowed to apply for a disaster program that pays for housing, medical and other living expenses.
Asked to explain the denial during a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said the extent of destruction on the Eastern Shore was simply not significant enough to provide the aid.
"We've looked at that and made the determination and recommendation — the president concurred — that at this point, the information doesn't support a major presidential disaster declaration," Fugate said.
"It is not based upon the trauma to the individual," he said. "You know, our hearts go out to them."
Federal aid has been flowing for weeks to families in harder-hit counties of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which endured the brunt of the storm. But even though Sandy largely skirted Maryland, it caused major flooding in some areas and up to 30 inches of snow in western counties.
The decision, which is derived from FEMA's recommendation but ultimately is made by the White House, is based in part on the state's capacity to help its own citizens as well as the amount of private insurance affected residents carry, officials said.
State officials had contended that the storm was of such magnitude that Maryland could not afford to adequately help residents. In his initial application Nov. 8, O'Malley also noted the high concentration of poverty in some of the counties most harmed.
Noah T. Bradshaw, the housing inspector for the city of Crisfield, said the conclusion that damage was not severe enough to warrant assistance is incorrect — and hard to take. On the surface, Crisfield doesn't look too bad. In reality, he said, it is devastated.
"We've got a mess, and a lot of folks displaced out of homes," Bradshaw said. "And, of course, everyone was hoping they would give us some assistance to speed up the process."
Mold is perhaps the largest concern, Bradshaw said. Muck that swept in with the water remains everywhere, he said, and a film of kerosene still covers some streets.
Crisfield homeowner Sandy Sturgis said she and her family had 2 feet of water in their single-story home. The family stopped paying for flood insurance last year after it became unaffordable. The flooding destroyed walls, a dryer and their furnace, she said.
When she learned of the decision not to cover individual losses, she said, she became "very disheartened with our government."
Sturgis said she hopes the appeal is successful.
"If there is a God, they will change their minds," she said. "It would mean everything to us."
The decision also prompted an outcry from elected officials in Maryland. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who had recently sent several letters to the White House requesting the aid, said she will insist that Fugate "revisit, reassess and reconsider" the decision.
Mikulski, a Democrat, will have the opportunity to press Fugate on that point today when he testifies before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
"The damage is devastating," Mikulski said in a statement. "I'm so disappointed FEMA denied these hardworking, patriotic Americans the help they need to get back into their homes and on their feet."
Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, sent a letter to O'Malley in which he recalled a tour the two men took together in Crisfield and Ocean City last month. "Like you, I was stunned to see the evident devastation there," he wrote.
State officials said they will continue to try to help residents while they pursue the appeal. They urged families and business owners with damage to report it to county emergency managers.
"People have been out of their homes, without everyday essential clothing for weeks," said Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman. "They are in need of assistance."
The state has 30 days to file an appeal, but the request is ultimately reviewed by FEMA — the same agency that made the initial recommendation. It is unclear whether state officials, who had already been supplying additional information to the federal government, will be able to reverse the determination.
A FEMA official contacted Maryland's Emergency Management Agency by telephone Monday evening with the news that the state's request for aid had been denied, said Ed McDonough, a MEMA spokesman.
The decision comes as the White House prepares to send a multibillion-dollar emergency spending request to Congress to fund disaster relief. That legislation will land in the middle of difficult negotiations over other fiscal issues that must be resolved by year's end.
Similar disaster spending bills have recently become controversial as Republicans have sought to offset their cost with budget cuts.