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$11.6-billion marked for states

Congress approves money for storm recovery and the federal government agrees to take on a greater share of the costs.

Published October 12, 2004

The federal government will spend billions of dollars to help Florida recover from four hurricanes and pay a larger share of the storm-related costs facing state and local governments.

The U.S. Senate on Monday sent President Bush an $11.6-billion relief package to help Florida and other states recover from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. The House unanimously passed the bill Saturday.

"I have presided over appropriations bills where we spent hundreds of millions and billions to fight fires in the West, and floods in the Midwest and Texas," said House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who sponsored the bill in the House. "So I was not bashful about coming to the aid of my own state when we had a disaster."

A separate agreement brokered by Gov. Jeb Bush and the state's congressional delegation will provide more federal help to state and local governments facing millions of dollars in hurricane-related costs, from damaged schools and roads to debris removal.

The federal government typically pays 75 percent of those costs, and state and local governments pay the remaining 25 percent. For the hurricanes, President Bush has agreed that the federal government will pay 90 percent of the costs, and state and local governments will pay the remaining 10 percent.

The president visited Florida after each of the four hurricanes and is locked in a tight race with Democrat John Kerry for the state's 27 electoral votes.

Gov. Bush, who lobbied federal officials for the change and wrote to his older brother, said it could save Florida and local governments up to $300-million.

"That's not chump change by our standards, that's a lot of money," Bush said in an interview Monday.

"This was an extraordinary set of circumstances. Not since the (1800s) have there been four hurricanes hit any state in the country."

Gov. Bush issued an executive order that says the state and local governments will split the hurricane-related costs not paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That limits the portion paid by local governments to 5 percent of the cost, and Bush said the state could pay some or all of that amount in some cases.

The change in the funding formula for local governments applies only to the bills they pay for such expenses as repairing damaged public buildings and roads, removing debris and operating emergency operations centers.

Pasco County Emergency Management Director Michele Baker said the change is "awesome" and will make it easier for the county to pay its share of the cost for debris removal, overtime and other costs.

"It will be a tremendous assistance to the county to receive that much reimbursement," she said. "All of these expenses are unbudgeted, so it's a tremendous hit to a local government."

In Charlotte County, which was devastated by Hurricane Charley, County Administrator Bruce Loucks said the formula change would make it easier to rebuild after the hurricane caused extensive damage to public facilities, including four fire stations, a county auditorium and the emergency operations center.

"It's very positive," he said. "It reduces our liability and makes the budget issues we have to deal with not as momentous."

Hurricane-related damages and other costs to local governments throughout Florida are an estimated $2-billion, including $24.3-million in Hillsborough County and nearly $10.5-million in Pinellas.

Here's how the FEMA public assistance program works: Local governments and agencies determine the cost of each project, such as rebuilding a road or repairing a school stadium. Then they submit an application to FEMA and the state Division of Emergency Management. The county emergency management office typically coordinates the application process.

Usually, local governments begin work on the projects while they are awaiting approval. The turnaround time may be several weeks, depending on the size of the project, and large projects are often approved and paid for in phases. FEMA pays the federal money to the state, which reimburses the counties, towns and cities.

Mike Stone, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said FEMA holds training sessions for local officials to learn how to fill out the applications.

"We don't want things held up because of a technical error - somebody didn't fill in a box, or didn't fill out the form properly," he said.

The $11.6-billion for disaster relief approved by the House on Monday includes $362-million for beach renourishment and dredging; $1.1-billion for repairs and other storm-related expenses at Pensacola Naval Air Station; $1.2-billion for repair of damaged roads and highways; and $100-million for Haiti and other Caribbean nations hit by hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne.

Besides the $11.6-billion, the relief package includes an additional $2.9-billion for farmers hurt by drought and other natural disasters.

Since Hurricane Charley hit Florida in August, FEMA has distributed about $1.25-billion in the state, including $500-million for water, ice and food and at least $400-million in grants for rental assistance to families. The Small Business Administration has approved more than $130-million in low-interest loans for storm-damaged businesses.

[Last modified October 11, 2004, 23:37:13]

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