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Obama approves disaster designation for November storm

Federal disaster aid will be available to the six local counties walloped by the brutal November snowstorms.

President Obama has declared that the Buffalo region was a major disaster area in the wake of that record-breaking snowfall, the first step in winning aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and federal officials announced Monday.

The severe lake-effect storms – which dumped nearly 7 feet of snow on some parts of the region and claimed 14 lives – caused an estimated $49 million in damage and cleanup expenses across upstate New York – $43.9 million of it happening in Erie County.

The state is hoping federal aid will cover the lion’s share of those costs.

“This much-needed assistance will help communities still recovering from last month’s extreme snowfall and ensure that they are prepared for the upcoming winter months,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “I thank FEMA for recognizing the severity of this storm and for approving our request for aid.”

The other counties covered by the disaster declaration include Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming, as well as the Northern Adirondack counties of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence, which were inundated by lake-effect snow from Lake Ontario.

The governor’s request for disaster aid followed a damage assessment that the state and FEMA began Dec. 1, which found that state and county governments in those nine counties spent $49.2 million responding to the storms and repairing the damage they created.

That’s far in excess of the $27.3 million in damage that’s required for a federal disaster declaration.

“Now, we’re going to continue working with FEMA to ensure we receive the largest amount of reimbursement we can,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who thanked the president and governor for their roles in delivering disaster aid.

FEMA will provide reimbursement to local governments for such work as debris removal, emergency protective measures, emergency road clearance repair and rebuilding of damaged infrastructure, including roads, schools, bridges, parks, hospitals, police stations, fire houses, water and wastewater treatment facilities.

In 2006, Erie County received $48.5 million from FEMA after the October Surprise snowstorm. FEMA later said the county improperly accounted for costs from that storm and demanded that the county return about $700,000 of the money.

Poloncarz, in fact, reminded local municipalities last month to make an accurate accounting of storm expenses to show FEMA should aid be made available.

Rarely does the federal government reimburse the full amount, the county executive said.

“If we got 75 to 80 percent of it, I’d be very happy,” Poloncarz said. “I know many of the local towns and villages were really hit hard financially from the storm.”

In addition, disaster loans have been made available in Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee and Wyoming counties, the governor’s office said.

Loans up to $200,000 may be available to homeowners to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate. Homeowners and renters also may be eligible for loans up to $40,000 to repair or replace personal property.

Business loans up to $2 million may be available for the replacement of real estate, inventories, machinery, equipment and all other physical losses. And loans up to $2 million may be available for small businesses and nonprofits to provide necessary working capital until normal operations resume after a disaster.

Members of Western New York’s federal delegation applauded the news on Monday:

“We fought hard to deliver this federal aid and are pleased FEMA and the Obama administration did the right thing so local taxpayers are not left footing the bill for this national disaster,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.: “I want to thank everyone for their effort as it was essential for losses to be documented efficiently and thoroughly so that we could quickly demonstrate to FEMA our need for these federal recovery funds.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo: “This declaration will trigger federal funds from FEMA, providing critical support to eligible entities in nine counties, to help in recovery from the recent snowstorm, and assist in protecting against damage from future natural disasters.”

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence: “The president’s disaster declaration today is an important step in aiding the rebuilding process for the thousands of individuals and businesses impacted by the deadly November storm.”

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning: “I am glad that we were able to work together on a bipartisan basis to secure this support from FEMA and the president.”