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An outrageous demand
FEMA push for $4 million repayment is one October Surprise too many

Few living in the Buffalo Niagara region during the "October Surprise" storm in 2006 will forget the extensive damage wreaked by felled trees, power lines and scattered debris, not to mention the hardships of power outages for several days or weeks, depending on the area.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency have no such memories, so they've disconnected from near-term history with a preliminary audit indicating that the City of Buffalo should reimburse the federal government nearly $4 million in disaster aid because local officials did not wait an entire week before cleaning up the mess.

No. City officials acted to deal with the emergency and ensure public safety. That challenge was different in the city than in the suburbs. There should be no demand for reimbursement in the final version of this audit.

Would FEMA officials have insisted Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans wait a week and go out for bids?

Granted, this is a "preliminary" audit and not indicative of the final review. But it would seem to telegraph where the agency wants to go. FEMA officials declined to comment because this is a draft report, which could be just as well because folks around here are fairly incensed -- and with good reason.

The October storm was labeled a "surprise" because the days leading up to the event were, by Buffalo standards, fairly warm and calm. Trees had barely shed a leaf, which later became much of the problem as they were weighed down by a sudden onslaught of snow and ice. Thousands of trees were lost and the replacement effort gave root to the "Re-Tree WNY" project.

City leaders skipped the public bidding process, reasoning safety concerns took priority. This page agreed with that decision at the time, and in retrospect it still looks wise. Some suburbs, such as Amherst, had the ability to take a bit more time, what with wider streets and curbs ideal for debris pickups.

Then-Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra also demonstrated good intentions in attempting to award cleanup contracts to local businesses, but when those businesses could not handle the work they, in turn, subcontracted to out-of-town businesses.

Just as Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown defended the city's quick action then, he has now had to repeat that defense now. He has been joined by Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Brian Higgins and Louise M. Slaughter, and a letter has been sent to FEMA Administrator William Craig Fugate noting that a $4 million bill for emergency actions, taken with what can only be described as due diligence in the circumstances, is "outrageous."

Preliminary or not, this audit reaches the wrong conclusion on Buffalo's reaction to an unexpected crisis that demanded immediate action. And, for an impoverished city still struggling with its finances, it's one surprise too many.

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