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 approve any request from New York State for a major disaster declaration following the severe flooding and windstorm that rampaged through Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties and entirety of Western New York on Halloween—Thursday, October 31st. The senators specifically referenced these counties as being particularly battered by the storm, which wreaked havoc across New York State. During the storm, winds blew in the area between 60 and 70 miles per hour, knocking down countless trees and leaving a reported 230,000 people across the state without power. Furthermore, in the City of Buffalo alone, the senators added, at least 11 trees fell on top of houses, destroying private property.
Additionally, the storm resulted in the partial failure of the Buffalo North Breakwater, which plays a critical role in shielding LaSalle Park and the Buffalo waterfront from flooding damage, and is estimated to cost more than $10 million dollars to reinforce and repair. Schumer and Gillibrand requested that FEMA actively prepare to issue a disaster declaration for the storm-ravaged Western New York communities, and additionally, to be prepared to participate in a Preliminary Damage Assessment with state and local officials, should the state request it.
“This Halloween storm was scary and real. Communities across Western New York, including the City of Buffalo, which saw the Buffalo North Breakwater destroyed, were ravaged by heavy rain, flooding, tempestuous winds and severe storms, and it is absolutely critical that we get them the resources they need to recover,” said Senator Schumer. “The damage is major and will total tens of millions of dollars in costs suffered, including the severely damaged Buffalo Break Wall. FEMA needs to mobilize its Disaster Assessment Teams and stand ready to swiftly approve any forthcoming requests from the state for assistance to help these communities recover.”
“Powerful storms caused power outages, flooding, and downed trees across New York last night. Thousands of households in Buffalo were hit by forceful winds and rain and are now without power. Last night’s severe weather also critically damaged the Buffalo North Breakwater,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We must do everything we can to help our communities recover, and New Yorkers need to be assured that the federal government will be ready to assist them. That’s why I’m calling on FEMA to quickly provide support and resources to minimize any damage to our neighborhoods, businesses, and roadways. I will continue to do everything I can to help our communities get the urgent support they need.”
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. Schumer and Gillibrand urged FEMA to be prepared to support any requests for aid from New York State.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorizes the president to issue “major disaster” or “emergency” declarations before or after catastrophes occur. The decision to issue a disaster declaration is at the discretion of the president, and must be requested by the governor of the state. These declarations unlock federal aid through FEMA that is broken into two broad areas: Individual Assistance (IA) that aids families and individuals, and Public Assistance (PA) that is mainly for emergency work such as debris removal and permanent repairs to infrastructure. When assessing the degree of PA damage, FEMA considers six factors: estimated cost of the assistance, localized impact, insurance coverage, hazard mitigation, recent disaster, and programs of other federal assistance. Regarding the cost, FEMA has certain thresholds that have to be met to qualify for PA specific to the state and the counties in question. For New York, the current PA threshold for the state is a little less than $30 million, which each county must experience $3.84 of damager per capita in FY 2020.
A copy of Schumer and Gillibrand’s letter appears below.
Dear Acting Administrator:
We write in strong support of communities across upstate New York affected by recent severe weather. We urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stand ready, is requested, to work with affected counties and New York State to determine whether damage meets the statutory threshold for FEMA disaster assistance, and if it does, to make assistance available as expeditiously as possible.
On October 31, 2019, New York was hit by record-breaking rain across upstate New York which caused widespread flooding and high winds into November 1. Oneida and Herkimer counties issued a state of emergency on October 31 due to the heavy rain and flooding. On the morning of November 1, the National Weather Service issued high wind warnings, with gusts up to 65 miles per hour, as well as flood warnings and flash flood warnings for 27 counties in upstate New York. These warnings, with some counties receiving multiple included: Albany, Broome, Chenango, Clinton, Cortland, Delaware, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Montgomery, Northern Cayuga, Oneida, Oswego, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, St. Lawrence, Tioga, Warren, Washington, and Wayne Counties. Thursday’s rainfall shattered records across Upstate New York. Syracuse received 1.84 inches, a full inch higher than the previous record for October 31, Watertown received 1.85 inches, Buffalo 1.43 inches, and Rochester 1.09 inches, all setting records for the date. The storm battered the Buffalo North Breakwater so severely that it experienced a partial failure. This is a critical shield to Buffalo’s waterfront and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is estimating the cost of addressing this damage could exceed $15 million. According to news outlets, at least two cars have been swallowed in a sinkhole, at least 11 trees have fallen onto homes and over 230,000 people were without power this morning, all of which has come to light in the few hours since this storm ravaged New York and we fear that more damage remains undiscovered or unannounced. As communities across upstate New York continue their recovery from this unexpected and record-setting storm, we urge FEMA to stand ready to participate in a Preliminary Damage Assessment with state and local officials, should the state request it.
We are grateful for the prompt attention that the federal government has historically give in responding to disaster impacting New York State. In that spirit, we strongly urge you to approve any forthcoming requests for FEMA assistance from New York State as affected communities begin their recovery from these storms.