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Ehrlich asks for disaster funds


As waters from this week's torrential rainfall continued to recede, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. requested federal disaster aid yesterday to help small businesses and state and local governments pay for repairs and cleanup.

In a letter to President Bush, the governor said help was specifically needed for five counties - Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Harford and Montgomery - that were hardest hit. Others, he said, might need help as local governments assess damage to roads, bridges and other structures.

"I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance is needed," Ehrlich wrote.

If the president approves the request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse the state, counties and municipalities 75 percent of their costs, according to Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Ehrlich said the total cost is likely to exceed $10 million.

"We cautioned FEMA that the money is sure to increase as we continue to do assessments," McDonough said. "The original request is for the five counties, though we also cautioned that we will probably be adding more in days to come."

In addition to requesting aid for specific counties, the governor also requested "hazard mitigation assistance" on a statewide basis - money that would help governments rebuild outdated structures to modern standards. This could include equipping roads with larger culverts, raising stream beds or building higher bridges. Such changes could help avert problems during future storms, McDonough said.

In addition, Ehrlich is seeking disaster loans from the federal Small Business Administration that would help private property owners - both business and residential - repair or rebuild damaged structures. The governor decided not to request direct grants to homeowners because damage did not appear heavy enough to qualify, McDonough said.

A decision on the governor's request could come as early as today but may not be made until early next week, McDonough said.

Maryland received some federal aid last year to help in the resettlement of Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The last time the state received federal aid for a local disaster was in 2003, when it received $45 million after Tropical Storm Isabel.

Meanwhile, calm was returning to areas that received the most storm damage.

In Havre de Grace yesterday, the city yacht basin was quiet as the few boaters milling around said the water was too clogged with seaweed, tree trunks and branches for them to venture out safely. They said they didn't want to risk jamming their engines with the debris that had washed into the basin after authorities opened some of the Conowingo Dam's floodgates a few miles up the Susquehanna earlier in the week.

"There were branches, and there were trees in the water," said Ryan Schuman, a dock assistant. "A 50-foot tree got stuck in here, and we had to bring it out with a barge."

By evening, some fishing had returned to the dock area. Jerry Hatfield of Aberdeen, who stood at water's edge, said he caught a few that were too small to keep.

Water levels continued to fall yesterday at Lake Needwood, an earthen dam near Wheaton in Montgomery County that had sprung seven leaks, causing a mandatory evacuation earlier this week. Residents were told Thursday that they could return, and shelters have closed.

Seepage from the dam had slowed, further easing concerns about the integrity of the structure, said Esther Bowring, a Montgomery County spokeswoman.

"It is very positive as far as the signs go with the dam," Bowring said.

Nevertheless, engineers with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission are still monitoring the dam 24 hours a day, Bowring said.

Bowring noted that the county incurred considerable costs during the flooding, but she said the total for funds spent on overtime, personnel, equipment and setting up shelters had not been compiled.

In Baltimore County, authorities said boaters could return to recreational tide waters, but they warned people to avoid water that is murky or filled with debris and warned people not to drink water from the Bird, Gunpowder, Middle and Back rivers and their tributaries and to avoid contact if they have open cuts or wounds.

Sun reporters Annie Linskey and Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.

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