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FEMA denies $6M storm reimbursement for Suffolk

FILE - The Friedmans' East Hills backyard has

FILE - The Friedmans' East Hills backyard has flooded more than a dozen times in the past five years, Louise Friedman says. She says the problem began when the village raised the level of land behind their home. (March 29, 2010) Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The federal government will not reimburse Suffolk the more than $6 million in storm cleanup costs after the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected a request from Gov. David A. Paterson to treat multiple March storms as a single disaster.

In his appeal for federal money, Paterson said the heavy rains that pounded Long Island March 13-15 and March 29-30 resulted from one weather system. The $6 million in Suffolk County's expenses that Paterson sought to get reimbursed from FEMA by connecting the two storms would have reimbursed municipalities for expenses associated with storm cleanup and police and fire response to deal with storm damage.

Officials at FEMA disagreed and said the storms were separate events. But at least one state, Connecticut, made the same argument as New York, and its application was approved by FEMA.

FEMA defended its decision Friday. "No two disasters are exactly alike and cannot be compared," FEMA spokesman Brad Carroll said. "Each request is considered on a case-by-case basis."

Even if New York had won the additional money from the federal government, residents of Horton Avenue in Riverhead - or anywhere else on Long Island - wouldn't have been eligible for cash assistance.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) held a news conference Friday in Calverton. The Horton Avenue flooding had exposed "a giant hole" in the safety net designed to serve as a last resort for individual homeowners, he said, adding he would try to change the law so it could be more responsive to situations such as Horton Avenue's.

Bishop joined Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in blasting FEMA's decision, a move Bishop called a "boneheaded denial" of relief.

"We're asking for fair and equal treatment," said Dennis Michalski, a spokesman for the New York State Emergency Management Office, adding New York would file an appeal with FEMA.

According to a letter from FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate to Paterson, the governor cited data from the National Weather Service to support his argument for linking the storms - the exact same agency FEMA cited to deny additional relief.

"In the case of New York, the weather events of March 13, 23 and 29-30, were determined, based on data verified by the National Weather Service, to be separate storm systems that were separated by more than 72 hours," Carroll said. "As a result, these distinct and separate storm systems have been handled as different and discrete weather events that do not overwhelm the state's capabilities."

In his request for federal assistance, Paterson stated the weather service in Upton had analyzed the rainfalls from March 13, March 23 and March 29 to 30 and found the three events "should be considered as one large event." The New York State's Office of Emergency Management identified more than $6 million in eligible public assistance damage in Suffolk County stemming from the March storms.

Scott DeVico, legislative director of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said his state won a disaster declaration by combining the March storms and considering them a single event.

"The rain from the [March] 12th and 14th made the rivers rise," DeVico said. "The rivers weren't back to normal when the second storm hit." The latter storm caused "widespread flooding" throughout southeastern Connecticut, DeVico said.

Nicholas Morici, a spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, said 15 out of 21 counties in the state suffered damages from the March storms. "We sustained significant damage, not only on a public level but on a private level," Morici said. New Jersey received aid from FEMA for local governments as well as for individual homeowners, Morici said.

With Mitchell Freedman

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