Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked the Obama administration on Wednesday to pick up the multi-billion-dollar tab for the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, a figure he said is being fueled by "devastated and unprecedented" damage to small businesses and the region's rail and subway systems.
So far, only individuals living in the five boroughs of New York City and Long Island have qualified for billions of dollars in federal disaster aid freed up Tuesday by an order signed by President Barack Obama. Obama's action also makes it possible for local governments from those areas to petition the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recoup money spent on recovery efforts.
Westchester County has yet to hit the $3.2 million threshold for damages necessary to qualify for federal aid. But Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino says that could change in the coming days as officials tally up damage to the county-owned Rye Playland, an ice rink and the neighboring boardwalk.
"There's no doubt we're going to qualify," Astorino said.
In addition, damage assessments are still coming in from various communities -- all of which contribute to the tally.
"It's every village, every town, every school and fire district," Astorino said.
Leaders of Orange and Rockland counties joined a chorus of local officials demanding the federal government's financial help as they repair roads, homes and businesses damaged by Sandy's fury.
"In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we have a natural disaster on our hands that demands urgent relief from our federal government," said Sen. David Carlucci (D-Rockland/Orange).
FEMA faced stinging criticism for its slow response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That hasn't been the case this time around, as Cuomo and fellow governors have heaped praise on the agency for its swift pledge of financial support.
FEMA officials are expected to tour Rockland County Thursday to assess the damage there.
Cuomo pegged the amount of lost economic revenue to businesses alone at $6 billion. The figure does not include extensive damage to rail and subway systems as well as other state infrastructure and private property losses.
In a letter to Obama, Cuomo asked the feds to go beyond the typical 75 percent reimbursement rate for disaster-related costs incurred by county and local governments and pick up the entire tab.
"Our counties are responding to the continued impacts of multi-building fires, tunnel closures, power losses to hospitals and other critical infrastructure, destroyed homes and sheltered populations -- all in the midst of historic flooding that has complicated emergency response operations exponentially," Cuomo wrote.
New York's U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, joined Cuomo at a midday news conference to urge the feds to equal the commitment they showed after 9/11, when $20 billion in federal aid flowed into the city.
"Everyone united," Schumer noted. "We expect the same unity now."
He said the feds should pay 90 percent, if not more, of costs incurred by Hurricane Sandy. He said the money is there -- about $7.2 billion in congressionally approved federal emergency disaster relief.
"There will be some in Washington who say we shouldn't do this," Schumer said. "But this nation has a grand tradition in the wake of national disasters or acts of terrorism of coming together."
He said he was heartened by the pledges of support he's received in recent days from Republican and Democratic colleagues.
"The initial signs are that the country won't make this a political football," Schumer said.
Obama urged FEMA to waste no time in assisting states in need.
"I want you to cut through red tape," Obama urged agency officials Wednesday. "I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There's no excuse for inaction at this point.
Federal assistance can include low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses as well as temporary grants for housing and home repairs. There are also programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the financial aftereffects of the hurricane.
Those who have sustained losses can apply for assistance by registering at http://www.disasterassistance.gov. They can also phone 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing- and speech-impaired.