Some Sandy victims still waiting for federal aid

A month after Hurricane Sandy crashed ashore, hundreds of Marylanders affected by the storm are still waiting for the federal government to provide funding for housing and living expenses.

Federal assistance has been flowing for weeks to families in hard-hit counties of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still reviewing a formal request for aid that Gov. Martin O'Malley submitted to the White House on Nov. 8.

That has left hundreds of Eastern Shore residents affected by Sandy in Worcester, Dorchester and Somerset counties waiting for relief. About four dozen homes in those three counties were significantly damaged and hundreds more were affected, according to one federal assessment.

Overall, the storm has caused more than $27 million in damage statewide.

"These people are getting antsy," said Noah T. Bradshaw, the housing inspector for the city of Crisfield, who estimated that there are up to 350 homes in the city that were severely flooded. "Give us something down here to help some of these people rebuild."

Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City on Oct. 29, sparing Maryland the brunt of its heavy rain and wind. Still, portions of the Eastern Shore experienced major flooding. As much as 30 inches of snow fell in Western Maryland. At the peak of power outages, about 365,000 homes were dark.

Days later, O'Malley formally requested federal assistance, writing that the storm was of such magnitude that "effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and local governments." He specifically requested assistance for people living in Worcester, Dorchester and Somerset counties.

Following a review by FEMA, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for Maryland on Nov. 20. That formal designation addressed part of the governor's request, allowing state and local governments to recoup costs needed to repair public facilities, such as roads and parks.

But the White House has yet to make a determination about individual assistance, which allows residents affected by the storm to apply directly to the federal government to help pay for temporary housing, to repair or replace homes and for other expenses, such as vehicle damage.

"We have a lot of individuals who will need it," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. "It's unclear whether the state's going to be able to provide [help] without federal individual assistance."

"We certainly understand that gathering the correct information and reviewing that information for an event like Hurricane Sandy can take some time," said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Edward J. McDonough. "But we also understand that some folks in Maryland — especially on the lower Eastern Shore — are struggling financially and are looking for a swift decision."

McDonough said that "state and local officials have provided FEMA with extensive documentation of the damages and we are … awaiting a decision."

FEMA declined to discuss the status of Maryland's application other than to say that it remains under review. Several officials said that the agency has requested additional information from state emergency officials and that those assessments are currently underway.

The agency is reviewing a similar request from West Virginia.

"We're going to find a way to help," said Sen. Ben Cardin, who has pressed the administration for the designation. "We believe that we have a good chance, but we're not putting all of our eggs in one basket — we are looking at other ways we can help the individuals involved."

Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, both Democrats, signed a letter to the White House last week arguing that some residents are "in desperate need" of the assistance. Cardin said he has spoken to FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate about Maryland's request.

"Nearly a month after Sandy, it's important that these residents know that they have a federal government on their side," Mikulski said in a statement.

In addition to federal aid to state and local governments, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said this week that it will impose a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of federally backed mortgages in some portions of Maryland.

Bradshaw and others said FEMA is working aggressively on the ground in the Eastern Shore to assess damage. On the surface, he said, the city appears to have made a remarkable recovery but deep problems remain.

"If you ride through Crisfield, it looks pretty good now," Bradshaw said. "But when you get inside [the homes], that's when you say, 'Oh my goodness — they're sitting on wet furniture.'"

Cardin and Harris spoke at a hearing Thursday of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works intended to assess the impact of the storm. During her testimony, New York Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand broke into tears as she described the story of two young boys who were swept away from their mother by floodwaters on Staten Island.

The hearing came 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 other budget cuts. Harris said he would insist that any additional money spent on Sandy recovery be paid for without adding to budget deficits.

He dismissed concerns that the position could jeopardize disaster funding to Maryland and other states.

"We have a $3.5 trillion budget," Harris said. "We should be able to find enough savings in that budget to pay for true disasters."