WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency is "raising the bar" on snow emergency declarations, which could make it harder for states to get money for snow emergencies this winter.
FEMA, which currently only requires a record or near-record snowfall to declare an emergency, last week officially proposed adding new qualifiers like road and office closures.
"We should treat snow declarations as other disasters," said James Walke, the public assistance branch chief in the recovery division of FEMA. "We need to treat them the same as a tornado or hurricane, not just another meteorological event."
FEMA posted the changes last week for a period of public comment, which will last until Nov. 1. Officials said the new policy could take effect later this winter, after the comments are reviewed.
Walke said the proposed new standards will probably affect aid to states.
The changes could have a dramatic impact on Maryland, which has had almost a third of its winter budget during snow emergencies and disasters reimbursed by FEMA in recent years.
But Russell Yurek, the director of maintenance for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said he has been aware of the proposed changes since 1999 and is comfortable that the state can live with the new policy.
Yurek said he used the new standards to apply for federal assistance during the last snow disaster in April 2000. The state received almost $11 million for that event.
"I don't think it will have much of an effect on us," he said. "Hopefully we will still be eligible for FEMA funding."
Walke said Maryland has received federal funds for three declared snow disasters and one emergency in the past nine years. The state has spent over $254 million for winter operations during that period, including almost $43 million provided by FEMA.
Currently, to be considered for emergency or disaster status there must a record or near-record of snowfall in the affected state or county. The new policy would require that states also show there are certain impacts, like the closing of highways and government offices, power outages, search and rescue operations and opening relief shelters.
Walke said that there was no formula used to determine what areas met the new classifications, but that the agency would look at the severity of the storm and the inability of the local government to handle it.
FEMA does not supply manpower during the snowstorms, but reimburses states for money they have spent after their governors ask the president for a disaster declaration. Walke said the money is mostly used for de-icing and snow removal.
Maryland does not budget for the reimbursement, but it has recouped a significant part of snow-emergency costs from FEMA.
In January 1996, when several storms dropped between 3 and 4 feet of snow across the state in six days, the state was allotted $13.9 million. During the 1993-1994 winter, when there was both a snow disaster and emergency, the state spent $38 million and got back almost $18 million from FEMA.