U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stand ready to quickly approve any request from New York State for a major disaster declaration for communities affected by flooding along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The senators explained that the communities surrounding Lake Ontario are now facing a repeat of 2017’s historic and devastating flooding, if not a worse situation, as indicated by the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission (IJC), which warned on May 27 that water levels of Lake Ontario stood at 248.85 feet and would likely reach or exceed the 2017 record high within the next few days. Therefore, in a letter to Acting FEMA Administrator Peter T. Gaynor, Schumer and Gillibrand requested that FEMA stand ready to approve any forthcoming requests from the state for a disaster declaration for municipalities affected by Lake Ontario’s flooding.
“As Lake Ontario’s water levels continue to climb and the associated damages get more and more severe, the feds must stand ready to immediately step in and do everything they can to help,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why I’m putting FEMA on notice now to be ready to support any requests for federal assistance from New York State so that Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River communities have the resources they need to confront any challenge. With the risk of further damages escalating by the day, we must have all hands on deck.”
“Two years ago, we saw how severe flooding from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River destroyed homes, businesses, and infrastructure along the shorelines,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Today, these communities are once again in danger from more extreme flooding, and we must do everything we can to protect these communities. I am calling on FEMA to quickly approve requests for federal assistance from these shoreline communities, and I will continue to do everything I can to help our communities get the urgent support they need.”
Schumer and Gillibrand explained that the flooding of Lake Ontario is already having a severe impact on the surrounding communities and that should it continue, it could become even worse. Currently, eight New York State counties – Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Cayuga, Oswego, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence – are currently under a state-imposed Declaration of Emergency. The senators said the flooding is already forcing businesses to shut down, damaging property and public infrastructure, and has eroded away land and shoreline protections. Schumer and Gillibrand noted that even after Lake Ontario’s water level crests, it will take many weeks throughout the remaining summer months for the water to drop, which may likely make it difficult to get a full accounting of damage incurred. Therefore, the senators asked FEMA to prepare to work with New York State and be as flexible as possible should the state submit an expedited request for disaster assistance for the communities impacted by the Lake Ontario flooding.
Schumer and Gillibrand have been pushing emergency preparation measures along Lake Ontario for months this flooding season. In March of this year, Schumer voiced his support for the confirmation of Jane L. Corwin, Robert C. Sisson and Lance V. Yohe to the IJC, to ensure the Commission was appropriately staffed to address the rising Lake Ontario water levels, and earlier this month announced their successful confirmation. Also this May, Schumer announced that following his push, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an official Declaration of Emergency to activate its Emergency Operations Center to join with state and local efforts to assist Lake Ontario communities in the event of flooding. Additionally, Schumer and Gillibrand called on the International Joint Commission (IJC) and International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control to assess and take all actions possible to mitigate flood risks to surrounding communities, including the appropriate maximization of outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam.
If a disaster declaration is declared, grant assistance would be made available to state and local governments, as well as certain non-profit organizations, to reimburse costs incurred for emergency work and the repair or replacement of damaged facilities. This funding is available on a cost-sharing basis; FEMA generally covers 75 percent of the eligible costs for permanent and emergency work. After any severe storm, the first step in the declaration process is for the state to request a Preliminary Damage Assessment, during which FEMA representatives join state, local, and other officials to survey damage across storm-impacted counties to help determine whether the cost of the disaster meets the criteria for a federal disaster declaration.
A copy of Schumer and Gillibrand’s letter to FEMA appears below.
Dear Acting Administrator Gaynor:
We write to urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stand ready to quickly approve any request from New York State for a major disaster declaration for communities affected by flooding along Lake Ontario. We appreciated FEMA’s approval back in 2017 when we made a similar request for FEMA and the president to act on any disaster declaration request. At that time FEMA approved public assistance grant funding to help reimburse communities for the costly damage they sustained when Lake Ontario water levels rose to a record high of 248.95 feet and flooded near-shore communities. These communities are now facing a repeat, if not worse situation, as indicated by the U.S.- Canada International Joint Commission which warned on May 27, 2019 that water levels of Lake Ontario stood at 248.85 feet and would likely reach or exceed the 2017 record high within the next few days.
Eight New York State counties – Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Cayuga, Oswego, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence – are currently under a state-imposed Declaration of Emergency. The flooding is forcing businesses to shut down, is damaging property and public infrastructure, and has eroded away land and shoreline protections. Even after Lake Ontario’s water level crests, it will take many weeks throughout the remaining summer months for the water to drop which may likely make it difficult to get a full accounting of damage incurred. Therefore, we also urge FEMA to stand ready to support any forthcoming requests for expedited assistance without a full field damage assessment. FEMA should be prepared to work with New York State and be as flexible as possible should the state submit an expedited request for disaster assistance for the communities impacted by the Lake Ontario flooding.
As the flood conditions continue, federal assistance from FEMA could be vital in ensuring that communities are able to repair damage, clean up debris, and undertake crucial mitigation work. We appreciate your attention to this matter and to our request to stand ready to support any requests from the state for disaster assistance.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator
United States Senator