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FEMA denies Hawaii's major disaster-declaration request because storm damage not severe enough

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday denied Hawaii's request for a major disaster declaration after Tropical Storm Iselle.

Iselle made landfall over the Big Island's isolated and rural Puna region nearly three weeks ago, knocking down trees and power lines.

FEMA denied the request because "it has been determined that the damage from this event was not of such severity and magnitude to go beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments and voluntary agencies," the agency wrote to the state Thursday.

Officials who toured the area about a week after the storm hit identified 28 homes with major damage and 11 that were destroyed, FEMA spokesman Casey De Shong said. About 20 percent of those homes had insurance, he said.

"The two factors combined ... really don't suggest the state of Hawaii was overwhelmed," De Shong said. "It just didn't constitute a declaration."

Approving Hawaii's request would have provided residents with help for uninsured damage such as home-repair funds, low-interest loans and rental assistance.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi urged the governor to appeal FEMA's decision. "For many people, their lives have still not returned to normal, and the federal government must help our communities," Kenoi said.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has 30 days to appeal.

"Storm surge and wind-driven waves flooded homes and moved them off their foundations in Kapoho, Hawaii County," Abercrombie wrote in his application to FEMA. "High winds downed hundreds of albizia trees, destroying and damaging hundreds of homes and causing extensive damage to the electrical infrastructure."

The storm "impacted the most impoverished district in the state," he wrote, noting that 27.8 percent of residents live below the poverty rate.

The state is disappointed, but it's still possible FEMA will approve help with public infrastructure damage, said Shelly Kunishige, spokeswoman for State Civil Defense/Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

"It would be nice, but I think there are a lot of volunteer groups on the ground, a lot of grassroots efforts to help the affected people out," Kunishige said, adding that the denial reinforces the need for the public to make donations to those groups.

"It was clear to me during my visit in Puna that assistance is absolutely necessary," U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose district includes the Big Island, said in a statement. "While this denial is a setback, it should not discourage us from seeking all other options for assisting our friends and neighbors in Puna."

The last time Hawaii received a FEMA major disaster declaration, Kunishige said, was for severe storms and high winds that caused extensive flooding on Oahu in December 2008.

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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