Wednesday September 7, 2011

WHITE CREEK, N.Y. -- Federal officials have issued a disaster declaration in Rensselaer County, and this week FEMA surveyors toured Washington County to inspect damage there in advance of a potential declaration for that county in the days to come.

Some 21 counties in New York have received that declaration as a result of damage incurred from Tropical Storm Irene. The designation is an important one for individuals and local and county governments seeking federal assistance to rebuild following the storm.

FEMA spokesperson Mike McCormick said that two "preliminary damage assessment teams" had toured the areas hardest hit in Washington County on Tuesday. Those officials traveled to areas in White Creek, Salem, and Granville along with state and county emergency management officials.

McCormick said that it would take "days, not weeks," before FEMA made the determination whether Washington County would be eligible for federal assistance, either public or individual or both.

Public assistance is made available to municipalities and certain non-profits, while private assistance is available to individuals and households. Public assistance declarations generally arrive earlier because the "losses tend to be bigger," said McCormick, involving public property, infrastructure, roads, and overtime and extra expenditures incurred by law enforcement and first responders.

Individual assistance declarations are calculated based partly upon the amount of uninsured damage versus the county population. The aid can include grants and loans for home repairs as well as temporary housing.

"We're waiting for (FEMA) to crunch the numbers," said Bill Cook, Washington County director for public safety, who accompanied one of those damage assessment teams Tuesday. Cook said that he was confident the county would receive public assistance.

In terms of residences, countywide Cook said that 11 homes had been irreparably damaged by flood waters, including two along the Hoosic River at the Buskirk Covered Bridge.

The entirety of Buskirk-West Hoosick Road lay submerged at the height of the floodwaters, according to local residents.

An additional at least 130 Washington County residences had reported some amount of damage, "from minor to major," Cook said.

As a result, at least 11 families in the county, and likely more, have been displaced as a result of Irene. The Cambridge Valley Rescue Squad has sheltered some of those local families over the past week.

Cook said that additional assistance may be made available through homeowner or small business loans provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or Small Business Administration.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a letter Wednesday to FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting waivers to allow homeowners, businesses, and farmers to retroactively enroll in federal flood insurance and crop insurance programs. If granted, the waivers would allow New York farmers to receive support for rehabilitation and recovery efforts, and would permit homeowners and small businesses to access the National Flood Insurance Program.

Early estimates indicate crop and agricultural damage totals in the tens of millions, with over 140,000 acres of farm land lost in New York, according to the governor's office. The vast majority of New York farmers are not eligible for most federal disaster aid under USDA programs due to not being enrolled in crop insurance programs, Cuomo wrote.

The waiver would permit farmers to receive up to $100,000 in federal aid, depending on the program, to rebuild their farms.

Last week, in Rensselaer County, members of the county legislature joined Congressman Chris Gibson to tour affected areas, including a section of Route 2 in Grafton. Federal disaster aid was approved early on for Rensselaer County, with storm damage there the worst in the western and southern parts of the county.

The town of Hoosick was largely spared. Town Clerk Susan Stradinger said that her office had not heard from any residents seeking assistance. In Irene's immediate aftermath, some Hoosick residents sought out shelter provided by the Town of Hoosick Rescue Squad.

If they have not already, residents or businesses who sustained losses can begin the process of applying for assistance by contacting FEMA, either in person at offices in Troy or East Greenbush, or online at www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362.