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State, Federal Officials Clamoring for Dollars to Clean Up Irene Aftermath

Irene's destruction was so widespread that some officials are worried about their communities getting a fair share of state and federal disaster relief funding.

Irene's wrath spared few throughout the state, from the eastern end of Long Island to the upper reaches of the Adirondacks.

While the lower Hudson Valley saw its share of flooding, power outages and downed trees, the area was fortunately saved from the complete devastation seen in the Catskill Mountains of Greene County, the Mohawk Valley west of Albany and the tiny, tight-knit towns south of the Canadian border.

But communities in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam still have plenty of work ahead of them as dozens of homes, businesses and roads were wrecked, some beyond repair. Compounding the problem is the already dire fiscal straits entangling local governments throughout the region. With state and federal agencies also feeling the crunch of the recession, paying for the cleanup is shaping up to be a tall order.

The damage spurred President Barack Obama to declare Westchester and Rockland federal disaster areas, which will allow them to receive expedited relief. In addition to counties and towns receiving money, individual homeowners will also be eligible to receive grants if their insurance doesn't cover all of the damage. An additional program provides funding for future flood-mitigation projects.

“Having toured the entire district, it is painfully obvious that our families and businesses need access to all of these assistance programs,” said Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), whose district includes all of Rockland and parts of Orange County.

Carlucci was one of a number of local politicians, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appealed to the White House last week for relief. Director of State Operations Howard Glaser said federal agencies would pay for up to 75 percent of the state's relief efforts.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has only about $800 million in its coffers—not even enough to cover the $1 billion in damages Cuomo said were incurred in New York, let alone efforts in states from Virginia to Vermont.

At the same time, Republican leadership in Washington, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), has said that any money used for hurricane relief must be offset by budget cuts. If the recent showdowns over the federal budget and the debt limit are any indication, the fight to provide relief for communities afflicted by Irene could be a long, dramatic one.

"I simply won't let politics get in the way of doing the right thing for our families and communities that have been affected by the disaster," Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-19) said in a statement.

Meanwhile, many officials are looking to address infrastructure issues that leave the region vulnerable to future flooding. Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye), whose district includes heavily-flooded Rye and Mamaroneck, said an Irene-like storm will inevitably happen again, and the region should be better prepared.

"We're not going to be able to eliminate the impacts of flooding completely, but the scope of the flood doesn't have to be as wide," Latimer said.

He said he plans to re-introduce a bill that would create a dedicated flood-mitigation fund to finance the cleanup of future floods. Such a fund, he said, would help ease future battles over government spending for relief efforts.

Individual home and business owners should call FEMA directly at (800) 621-3362 in order to apply for federal disaster relief grants.

On a personal note, this will be my last Capitol DisPatch, as I move on to cover state government for Thomson Reuters. It's been a pleasure delving into some of the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers and lower Hudson Valley residents over the last 30-odd installments of this column. Your feedback helped shape the direction of my reporting, just as it should (and often does) influence the decisions made by our local, state and federal representatives. Thanks for reading! -- Dan Wiessner

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