Home and business owners in 27 Pennsylvania counties still reeling from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have been cleared to receive government disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday.
That is, if the aid money holds out.
President Obama issued disaster declarations this week for much of the state - including Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties - after a punishing three weeks of rain that flooded hundreds of homes and pushed emergency-response mechanisms to their limits.
But the decision comes amid an ongoing fight in Washington on how to address FEMA's dwindling assistance reserves - down to about $407 million, according to a statement issued by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Senate is expected to consider a bill later this week that would provide the agency $7 billion in funding, including $500 million that the White House has said was necessary to keep FEMA disaster relief running through the end of the fiscal year.
Reid blamed Republicans - some of whom have insisted Congress find spending cuts to offset every additional dollar it allocates to disaster relief - for blocking the legislation Monday in a vote that was overturned Tuesday.
"It's unthinkable that Republicans would waste time catering to the radical tea party," he said, "while innocent victims of devastating disasters bide their time."
In Pennsylvania, governments continue to tally the damage wrought by this month's storms. FEMA's declaration Tuesday opens the doors for individuals seeking temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured or underinsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the storm.
Local governments in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Chester Counties have also been approved to receive federal money for emergency work and repair to damaged infrastructure. So far, Montgomery and Bucks Counties are not on that list, though they may be added as damage estimates are made final, said FEMA spokesman Mike Wade.
"As the state continues to do their estimates, they can submit more information," he said.
This year, tropical weather on the East Coast, droughts in the South, and wildfires across the parched Southwest have pushed federal disaster-aid funds to their limits. So far this year, Obama has issued disaster declarations in 48 states. FEMA has already spent $365 million to aid cities and people affected by Hurricane Irene, including about $38 million to New Jersey's storm victims.
The failure of Reid's bill Monday had some local officials worried that the agency might not have enough cash on hand to meet the needs of all individuals requesting aid. But the Senate vote Tuesday cleared a procedural hurdle that would allow the bill to reach the floor as soon as this week.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) initially voted to block the bill, but broke with his caucus Tuesday, saying he had received assurances from Reid that spending cuts would be part of the discussion.
"I support federal funding so that we can deliver disaster relief to those in need," he said Tuesday. "But I also believe we should and can do so in a fiscally responsible manner."
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) said he hoped his House colleagues - set to vote on a companion bill next week - come to the debate with more open minds.
"This cannot be a partisan issue," he said. "Last time I looked, hurricanes aren't designated to go after Democrats or Republicans. Everyone gets flooded."
For now, though, FEMA officials are confident they can still meet the area's needs despite the funding crisis.
"There are still funds available," Wade said. "We're here still providing assistance to individuals and localities."
Register online at www.disasterassistance.gov
Register from a Web-enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov
Call 1-800-621-3362 (FEMA), Ext. 3362.
The toll-free telephone number is open between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. seven days a week. Potential applicants must register their damage estimates with FEMA separately from those sent to local emergency-management agencies.
SOURCE: Federal Emergency Management Agency