Norton wants FEMA, D.C. to be 'partners' in recovery efforts from big snowstorms

More than a month after the nation’s capital was paralyzed by a series of blizzards, lawmakers are planning a congressional hearing to try to shore up federal emergency funding to reimburse the economically strapped region’s recovery and response efforts.

The move comes as President Barack Obama announced plans last week to make federal aid available to Washington, D.C., for the December snowstorm that dumped 16 inches on the city. But the White House has not designated any federal disaster aid to the city for the two back-to-back blizzards that ravaged the city last month.

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Shortly after February’s storms, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that D.C. could consider the two storms, which dumped nearly 3 feet on the city, as one single emergency-related event. The move qualified the city for federal reimbursement as it pertained to snow removal and recovery-related costs.

In addition to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) closing the federal government for five days, Metro, which shut down bus and train service for much of the snowbound week last month, racked up expenses totaling $18 million for snow removal and lost revenue.

And in the days following the snowstorms, D.C. government officials deployed nearly 200 snow removal trucks throughout the city, adding millions of dollars in costs for the city as D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty sent Obama a letter asking for federal assistance.

The federal funds – available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- could cover as much as 75 percent of the D.C. government’s costs.

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is concerned that FEMA may not be fully in touch with the unique needs of the D.C. region and is worried that its response to the snowstorms may reflect that disconnect.

“FEMA [is not] accustomed to snow emergencies that cripple big cities, much less the federal government itself,” said Norton, who is the chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over FEMA.

“The shutdown of the federal government put a new wrinkle in disaster response and preparation, and in turn has put a new focus on state and local governments, as well as Metro, here during an emergency.

“At this hearing, we intend to ensure that FEMA and this region, which have been virtual strangers, become partners.” 

Norton said she wants to work especially hard to develop a congenial relationship with FEMA “because the federal presence here is central to the region’s economy and to the security of the United States” and that last month’s government shutdown “[raised] special concerns about homeland security.”

Officials from FEMA, Metro, the OPM, and the D.C. National Guard have all been invited to testify before the subcommittee’s hearing on March 23.

But D.C.’s fight for federal aid comes as many throughout the country are making similar requests after facing natural disasters of their own. 

Earlier this week FEMA announced that six counties in California qualified for disaster relief to reimburse area recovery efforts after nearly a month of winter storms, flooding, and mud and debris runoff plagued the state.

State officials requested $59.1 million in federal recovery aid for eight counties, but it was still unclear how much FEMA would actually designate.

Also earlier this week, Obama cleared Kansas and South Dakota for federal disaster aid. The two Midwest states had been hit hard with winter storms over December and January.

And one day after Obama announced that federal funds would be made available for the December snowstorm in D.C., Delaware Gov. Jack Markell wrote to Obama asking him to declare the February snowstorms in his state a disaster eligible for federal aid. Delaware’s state recovery costs for the blizzards have been estimated at nearly $9 million.