September 14, 2011

HURRICANE IRENE AND FEMA DISASTER RECOVERY ASSISTANCE

 About 2 weeks ago, right before Hurricane Irene struck, I was at the Maryland Emergency Management Center located in Reisterstown, MD. I was with Governor O'Malley, the Governor of our State, and other leaders. I saw our team there to prepare the people of Maryland for the onslaught of Irene and later from Tropical Storm Lee. I saw Maryland preparing the best it possibly could to minimize the risk to the people of our State from a natural storm. I saw the local officials do the right thing and tell people in our coastal areas to evacuate their homes because of the potential risk to life and property from this massive storm.

   I also saw another agency that was located right there, side by side with the Maryland agencies, and that was FEMA, the Federal officials. These were people I met for the first time. They were not from Maryland. They had come in from other States to help the people of Maryland and provided the expertise to our State officials so we could properly prepare for this storm that was potentially damaging to the people of Maryland. They were there.

   I thank President Obama for declaring, before the storm hit, emergency declarations to Maryland so we could utilize Federal resources and we could take maximum steps to minimize the loss of life and property. It was the right thing to do.

   I take this time on the floor--I am going to talk a little bit about the damages that occurred in my State--to point out that we have always come together as a nation to stand by those who have been devastated through these natural disasters. This has been a particularly rough year. We have seen hurricanes and storms and tornadoes and flooding and even an earthquake on the east coast of the United States. This has challenged our ability to respond in a timely way. We have a responsibility to make sure our Federal agencies have the resources to respond--how they were able to be about Maryland before the storm, during the storm and after the storm and they are there now to help the people of Maryland. Our governments--our local governments, our businesses, and our residents are counting on that continued Federal purpose to get us through this very difficult period.

   Hurricane Irene caused severe storms, flooding, and strong winds in the State of Maryland. It was followed by Tropical Storm Lee, which aggravated the flooding and other damage throughout the State, including damage to roads, water treatment plants, and agriculture. Our agricultural community was hit hard. Our water treatment facilities, the plants we depend upon to keep our waters clean and to keep our neighborhoods safe, were damaged severely by this storm. I have talked to our transportation people. Roads were knocked out. Damage was caused.

   On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, as I have already indicated, there was a mandatory order for evacuation of Ocean City the weekend before the Labor Day weekend, resulting in heavy economic losses during one of the most profitable periods during the summer for that city. The flooding in Queen Anne's County destroyed railroad tracks. I have a photograph. This is, by the way, railroad tracks. They have been knocked out by the hurricane. As you can see, this required emergency attention.

   Multiple roads were closed and numerous homes were flooded in the town of Millington after the Chester River flooded over its banks. In Millington, the wastewater treatment plant was disabled, also affecting the residents in Kent County. The storm in Talbot County caused roads and pipeline damage.

   Let me show you this photograph, if I might, because I think it points out the problem. When that amount of water goes through the storm pipes, it can cause significant damage because these pipes were not able to handle the amount of water that was brought down by the hurricane and tropical storm. As a result, the pipes burst, causing the road which the pipe was under to give way, bringing about a road closure. That was terribly inconvenient, of course, to the people of that area, the businesses, et cetera. I am showing an example in Talbot County, MD, on the Eastern Shore. We could show numerous other examples of the failure of stormwater management pipes as well as roads that had to be closed for public safety. In Caroline County, the towns of Federalsburg and Greensboro experienced major flooding of the Choptank River, including the malfunctioning of a wastewater treatment plant. In Cecil and Harford Counties, Irene led to the opening of a significant number of floodgates at the Conowingo Dam, due to rising water levels feeding in from the Susquehanna River. This was the first time the engineers took such measures since Tropical Storm Isabel hit Maryland in 2003. Opening the floodgates led to flooding and property damage in many areas, and mandatory evacuation orders were issued for Port Deposit and Havre de Grace, in Maryland.

   People had to leave their homes. The streets were underwater. When the water receded, there was muck and damage to the towns.

   In southern Maryland, damage from metal on a roof that was blown into a transformer forced the shutdown of a reactor at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. In Calvert County, many of the substations were damaged and rendered inoperable during Irene, resulting in widespread power outages for many customers and that forced businesses to close for several days. You heard about power outages. We had whole counties where everyone was out of power--everyone. In most of our counties the majority of people lost their power, not for a couple hours, for many days, causing major disruptions to our businesses, to our families, to schools that could not open and, therefore, parents who could not go to work because they had to deal with the unexpected news that the schools would be closed because there was no power in the schools themselves.

   In the Washington metro region, Irene and the additional storms caused severe power outages and flooding in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. In Prince George's County, the loss of power caused thousands of basements to flood. As you know, without power you cannot use your sump pumps. Without that, there is significant damage.

   Frankly, because the water came in from the low level rather than from the roof, these property owners are now being challenged as to whether their insurance will cover this damage. That raises the importance, I might say, of the Federal protections that are available when a disaster is declared an emergency by the President because of the altercations over what insurance does not cover. All the more reason why the Federal Government must be there in its traditional role to help communities when a storm or emergency occurs.

   Hurricane Irene and subsequent storms required governments to incur additional expenses due to overtime needed for first responders who save lives and property after the storm. I must tell you, I saw those first responders. I saw them out there working 24-hour shifts in some cases. They didn't get home to their families because they were there to help us maintain order and help reduce the loss of life and the loss of property. I thank President Obama for making a timely major disaster declaration for the State of Maryland in advance of the hurricane. Maryland is now eligible for Federal disaster recovery dollars through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The State budget has already been very much impacted. We all understand our States do not have the flexibility of our country. It is during emergencies that our State and local leaders look to Washington, look to their Federal Government to be there as a partner to deal with this issue that States cannot deal with.

   Congress has always acted in a bipartisan manner to help Americans and their communities recover from natural disasters. Congress has never insisted that disaster fund being offset.

   Let me explain this issue because it may be confusing to the people who are watching. Yes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a budget. FEMA has a budget. But you cannot predict the number and scope of natural disasters. No one had predicted this storm would be as widespread as it was. Hurricane Irene affected the entire east coast of the United States. FEMA did not have in its budget that type of a scenario, along with the tornadoes we had, along with what has happened in the Midwest. During this period, we have seen 48 of our States declared eligible for FEMA assistance. This affects our entire country. Now the people on the east coast of the United States are looking to the Federal Government to be there.

   We have always done this, as I said, in a bipartisan manner, without the requirement that if additional moneys are needed, those moneys will be appropriated by Congress. We will not ask other agencies to have to contribute toward that because that was not anticipated when we did the budget. I might point out that we had a very contentious fight over the Budget Control Act. That is the bill we passed that allowed us to increase our debt ceiling and set our budget allocations for fiscal year 2012, the year that will start on October 1.

   As you know, there was an agreement in that Budget Control Act that permits the modification of the fiscal year 2012 discretionary cap to be adjusted to accommodate additional disaster relief funding without an offset. That is what we did. We came together as one entity recognizing we cannot predict the next hurricane, storm, earthquake, flood, or tornado. We just cannot predict that. Therefore, Democrats and Republicans said adjust the cap. Meet whatever disaster is out there. Whether it was Katrina in Louisiana, whether it is a bridge falling down in Minnesota that the Presiding Officer had to deal with, whether it is tornadoes as we had in the Midwest, droughts and floods that occurred in our country, we will be there to help the people of America. We helped rebuild countries around the world. We want to make sure we help the communities.

   I was with my colleagues from Vermont, and they shared with us the number of bridges that had been wiped out, people who have been isolated as a result of Hurricane Irene and then Tropical Storm Lee. We have a responsibility, and we recognize that in the budget agreement, that we adjust the caps without setoffs so the Federal Government can be there as a true partner in dealing with these issues. We were there for preparation. It is now time to help restore the communities. In some cases it will take months before we are back to normal. We know that, the people know that, but they have a right to expect that the Federal Government will be there to help.

   I commend Senator Landrieu, the chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee; Senator Inouye and the members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. They recognize that. They have given us a budget that will accommodate the extra needs so FEMA will have the resources it wants.

   I thank President Obama. His budget request to us reflects the resources we need so we have the recommendation from our Appropriations Committee. We have the leadership from the White House. Now it is time for us to act. We have the vehicle on the floor of the Senate. It is time for us to give the resources to the Federal agencies so they can be there in all parts of this country--including helping the people of Maryland cope with the disaster of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee and the other natural disasters that have happened in other parts of the country by--taking up this issue now, passing it at this moment so the funds are there and the resources are there.

   We can live up to the historical mission of the United States to always be there to help any part of our Nation affected by a natural disaster. I hope we will be able to bring up this issue quickly. As the vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee indicated, it should not be delayed because of offset issues. We should get the needed funds and resources to the agency, working with our State and local governments, working for our local communities so we can try to restore and rebuild those areas that have been devastated by these natural disasters. I would urge us to do that as quickly as possible.