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Isabel Recovery Off to a Good Start, But Officials Warn of Long Road Ahead

By Cheryl Johnston
Capital News Service
Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003

WASHINGTON - Disaster agencies said relief efforts in Maryland are going well, but warned the state's congressional delegation Thursday that complete recovery from Hurricane Isabel will be a long process.

"I would emphasize to everyone that recovery is long term," said Homeland Security Under Secretary Michael Brown.

In the six days since the storm swept across the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has handed out $2 million in relief funds, said Bill Lockey, the FEMA official in charge of Isabel cleanup.

Lockey also said that FEMA has more than 250 inspectors in Maryland and that state and federal officials have opened 11 assistance centers where residents and business owners can start the process of getting repair loans, among other assistance.

Officials said they cannot yet put a price tag on the total damage caused by the hurricane -- in part because many of the areas they need to inspect are still under water. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency expects to have a detailed damage assessment as early as Friday, said MEMA Director Don Keldsen.

But officials don't need a spreadsheet to know that some parts of the state are still "a mess." That is how they described parts of Anne Arundel County, adding that there has also been significant damage to Bowleys Quarters in Baltimore County, Fells Point in Baltimore City and to Dorchester County bridges.

"Now we have to understand the reality setting in," said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., of the magnitude of the problem. "It's important to get the right information out."

Sarbanes -- who called the meeting with representatives from FEMA, MEMA, the Small Business Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Agriculture Department -- expressed concern about FEMA's system of rating disaster areas before providing funds. By Thursday, Maryland had been cleared for categories A and B on a seven-level scale, which means that FEMA had only approved funding for debris removal and security measures.

"We've experienced losses in some of these five (other) categories," Sarbanes said.

Keldsen assured the delegation that MEMA will apply for funding in additional categories, once the agency has had a chance to assess the disaster data it has been collecting this week.

Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, expressed concern that the newly opened disaster relief centers may close before local residents come forth to apply for aid.

But Lockey assured the delegation that the centers would stay open as long as there is a need. The centers can stay open up to 60 days from the time a federal disaster is declared in an area, he said.

Lockey also assured Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, that subsequent flooding would be counted as part of the Isabel damage. Bartlett was particularly concerned about Frederick, which has already been hit by post-hurricane flooding and was expected to get more rain Thursday night.

Lockey asked the Maryland lawmakers to remind constituents that before they call FEMA, they should contact their insurance companies to find out what is covered under their policies.

He cautioned delegation members that, even though a family could get as much as $25,000 in financial assistance from FEMA, the average handed out so far for Isabel-related damage is only $3,100 per person.

Lockey said FEMA has already referred about 4,500 homeowners and 900 businesses to the Small Business Administration for loans to repair hurricane damage. An SBA official said the agency can give homeowners a 30-year loan at a rate as low as 2.6 percent, and businesses can get a rate as low as 3.1 percent.

The meeting also included Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville; Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington; and Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville. The meeting was more informational than confrontational and, while lawmakers asked the questions that they said their constituents had been asking them, they prefaced the questions with praise for the relief workers.

"I understand right now is the first phase," said Mikulski at the end of the two-hour discussion. "I think we've got a long road."

Copyright 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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