U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin publicly challenged on Wednesday a federal decision not to provide aid to Maryland residents affected by Hurricane Sandy — calling on President Barack Obama and federal emergency officials to rethink the decision.
"It's a sad day in Maryland," Mikulski said at a hearing on storm relief efforts before the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, holding up a copy of The Baltimore Sun reporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's decision Tuesday to deny Maryland families aid.
The areas hit by the storm are some of the most "cash poor" in the state, she said — and people can't recover on their own.
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Crisfield, MD, USA
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"We understand the collective damage issue," Cardin said, noting the many fronts of storm damage FEMA is handling. "But if you live in Crisfield, Maryland, you are suffering as badly as any part of any community in this storm, with homes that are not habitable."
During a House hearing Tuesday, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate had said the extent of destruction on the Eastern Shore was not significant enough to warrant individual aid. On Wednesday, he underscored that FEMA has not left the state entirely.
Maryland received FEMA funding for damages to public facilities and for hazard mitigation, but that does not apply to personal loss.
"I sometimes struggle with when we say, 'No,' because it's not easy. But it doesn't mean that we're not going to work with the governor to see what's possible," Fugate said.
He also said it is possible that an appeal from the state — which must be filed within 30 days — could reflect "damages that may not have been there on the initial surveys but have become a problem as more examination is done."
Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said community development block grants could also be used to facilitate recovery in the state.
The O'Malley administration has vowed to appeal the decision, which was ultimately made by Obama based on FEMA input.
Mikulski, at the hearing, said, "The president said he would cut through red tape. We want him to do it."
Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and questioned Fugate on the denial at the Tuesday hearing, said he hopes the appeal is successful.
But if that is not the case, he said, he hopes Maryland will pick up the recovery bill, as Somerset County — one of the state's poorest — is "not going to be able to help."
At the hearing Wednesday, legislators from multiple states hit by the storm spoke of the conditions they are facing post-Sandy, and Fugate and Donovan spoke to recovery efforts.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana and chair of the subcommittee, offered an overview of the storm's impact nationally: 120 dead; 340,000 homes and 200,000 businesses destroyed; 8.5 million families without power, heat or running water for weeks. Some in New York and New Jersey remain without those utilities, she said.
In Maryland, estimates from Crisfield are that more than 300 homes are badly damaged.
"The scale of this disaster has created significant housing and transportation challenges, and a successful recovery will require a sustained effort at the federal, state and local level, from government, from private sector and voluntary organizations," Landrieu said.
The federal response has been "robust" to date, she said, but she joined others in calling for more to be done.
Mikulski and Cardin repeatedly urged Maryland to be included in the ongoing recovery efforts, hammering home the destruction seen along the lower Eastern Shore and in Garrett County, in Western Maryland, which was hit by a blizzard.
As O'Malley has previously, both senators stressed the poverty level along the Eastern Shore.
"In Crisfield, 32 percent of the population is below the poverty level," Cardin said. "They have homes that they can't live in. They are looking to us for help. They want us, they expect the federal government, to be a partner, and we have to find a way to make sure we can help them in their time of need."
Mikulski called those Marylanders hardest hit by the storm hardworking, patriotic Americans who support their country and who deserve reciprocal support in their time of need.
"When you talk about rural people whose incomes depend on either commercial fishing or on agriculture, they are rich in pride, patriotism and individualism, but they're often very cash poor," she said.
"We in Maryland have some of the most prosperous counties in America, but we also have some of the most poor, and that's who got hit by this storm."
Many federal legislators, based in Washington, know the Eastern Shore of Maryland well, and the area often receives attention for "how quaint and lovely and charming we are," Mikulski said. But those on the shore now are "singing the blues," she said.
"They're the 2 percent that go to war and fight for America," Mikulski said. "Now they want Cardin and Mikulski to fight for them and they want this country to take a look at their rules and [regulations] and to see how we can get them help over this very troubled time."