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FEMA urges state to look elsewhere for disaster aid for riot recovery

After shooting down the state's request for disaster aid for the second time last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Maryland could recover costs associated with rioting that broke out after the death of Freddie Gray in other ways.

The state and city have unspent money from two other FEMA programs that could be reprioritized, an agency spokesman said. Under the State Homeland Security Grant Program, the state has $251,049 in fiscal year 2013 funds and $5.9 million in fiscal year 2014 funds that have not been spent. Baltimore has $5.1 million and $5.5 million in unspent funds for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, respectively, under FEMA's Urban Area Security Initiative.

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The FEMA spokesman, who declined to be named, also cited a U.S. Department of Justice program designed to provide financial assistance to local law enforcement in extraordinary circumstances that create potentially serious threats to public safety, such as civil unrest. In the past, for example, it's been used to help pay for overtime for law enforcement.

FEMA rejected the state's appeal for disaster aid in a July 29 letter, calling it "not appropriate for this event." A disaster declaration from FEMA would have allowed public agencies in the state and city to recover 75 percent of eligible costs.

Gov. Larry Hogan said he was outraged by the decision, while Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expressed disappointment.

FEMA said that neither city nor state officials had requested a reallocation of money under its other programs.

City spokesman Howard Libit said that money is already spent or in the process of being spent on items such as radiation detectors, respiratory masks and employee training. He pointed out that procurement takes time and the receipts may not have reached the federal government yet.

"It is a question of accounting, it is not a question of unspent money," Libit said.

The city is looking into other federal programs, including Justice's Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program, Libit added.

"I certainly appreciate FEMA telling the DOJ how to spend its money," Libit said.

"But at the end of the day it is the DOJ's decision."

Chas Eby, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said it had reached out to the Justice Department and was told Congress had not funded the program so there are no funds available. Eby also said that the other FEMA program money has been doled out.

In seeking disaster funds, Hogan cited FEMA's aid for incidents other than natural disasters, including the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Los Angeles riots after the shooting of Rodney King in 1992. Those three days of rioting resulted in more than 50 deaths and an estimated $1 billion in property damage. That disaster was declared specifically for "fires occurring during a period of civil unrest," the FEMA spokesman said.

FEMA first told Hogan in a June 12 letter that aid was not appropriate for costs associated with rioting, prompting the governor to appeal the ruling.

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in Baltimore police custody on April 12 and died a week later. His death sparked mass protests against police brutality, with the worst rioting and looting happening hours after Gray's funeral April 27.

Six police officers have been charged in Gray's arrest and death. All have pleaded not guilty and are set to go to trial in October.

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