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Federal disaster aid for Allegheny, Westmoreland flooding victims denied

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 1:59 a.m.

Officials in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties plan today to talk with state officials about appealing a federal ruling denying emergency aid for flooded eastern suburbs.

Officials learned Monday the Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied Gov. Ed Rendell's request for federal help. The floods June 17 affected hundreds of homes and caused millions in damages, but not enough to overwhelm the state and local agencies, FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate said in a letter.

"There are a lot of people, not just in Turtle Creek, whose lives were changed by this forever, and I'm not sure they're seeing this," said Turtle Creek Mayor Adam Forgie. "This is a joke. People need help and they need it now."

More than 200 homes in Turtle Creek were damaged by the flash flooding. Families there, many of whom are poor, continue cleanup efforts. Some worry they're breathing toxins from the dried sewage in their homes, Forgie said.

Three FEMA inspectors had visited Turtle Creek after the flood with representatives of other federal agencies. They were accompanied by county and state officials, who appealed for direct financial help to the stricken families, called individual assistance.

FEMA considers the concentration of damages, whether victims were vulnerable people such as the elderly and unemployed, and whether resources from the state, insurance and charities could sufficiently help, FEMA spokeswoman Niki Edwards said. Edwards said she did not know how close the region was to qualifying for individual assistance. Fugate's letter gave no details.

The state has lost only one request for individual assistance since 2001, said spokeswoman Maria A. Finn of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. And in that case, federal officials did provide aid for public infrastructure damages, which is considered separately by FEMA.

The state is still pursuing public assistance from FEMA. The counties need to show $16 million in damage. So far, they have only shown about $11 million to $12 million, Finn said.

Flood victims have to report damage to their municipalities, which then give that information to county officials to add to the total, Finn said. Pitcairn, another of the hard-hit towns, has yet to get totals from some of its flood-damaged businesses because they are still waiting on repair estimates, Mayor Betsy Stevick said.

"I tried not to build people up," she said. "It's sad. It is sad, but, frankly, I thought we had a 50-50 chance (with FEMA), and I'm certainly not a gambler."

Officials from different levels of government have different estimates on the damage.

There may be only about $9 million of public infrastructure damage reported so far, said Dan Stevens, spokesman for Westmoreland County's department of public safety. That is on top of another $9 million in residential damage for both counties, he said. About half of that is from Westmoreland County, according to a report sent to federal officials.

Allegheny County does not have any dollar-figure estimates, said county spokesman Kevin Evanto. The county feeds raw data to FEMA, which then calculates its own estimates, he said.

Most affected buildings had only minor damage, according to PEMA figures. There were 11 destroyed. Another 136 had major damage. At least 1,192 were affected according to PEMA estimates. But Allegheny County alone is reporting 1,658 damaged buildings, according to figures from Evanto.

"We believe there was enough damage here to get the designation," county Executive Dan Onorato said. "Just because one agency in the federal government rejected it, we're not going to stop. We're going to revisit one more time."

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