HARRISBURG — A long-time legislative goal of Sen. Lisa Baker (R-20) moved closer to reality with the Senate’s unanimous passage recently of legislation to create a state disaster assistance program. Similar to programs in more than 20 other states, her initiative would provide grants to county and municipal governments suffering from flash floods, tornadoes and other localized disasters.
“In a small community losses can far exceed means, whether the disaster affected one street or 100,” Baker said. “However, today’s disaster assistance programs only apply when the tragedy is large enough to draw a federal declaration.”
The program would give state grants to public entities to cope with uninsured losses caused by flash floods, fires, snowstorms, tornadoes, landslides, hazardous material spills, and other emergencies, but that fall below the state’s $17.5 million threshold for federal aid.
An estimated 2,500 small disasters occur in the Commonwealth each year, according to estimates from nonprofit disaster relief organizations.
“Although judged to be ‘small’ by federal standards, these disasters were ‘big’ in terms of our small neighborhoods and their limited budgets,” Baker said. “The state should play a role in recovering from these situations. The gaps in aid between federal programs and private insurance are hurting regions who have already lost so much.”
Under a newly amended version of Senate Bill 720, state assistance would be limited to grants to help repair damage to public facilities, such as roads, bridges and wastewater treatment plants.
Grants would be derived from a $3 million appropriation included in this year’s state budget, which Governor Tom Corbett has been holding in reserve.
The money could help municipalities such as Choconut and Forest Lake Townships in Susquehanna County, where local emergency management officials reported that their infrastructure sustained more than $400,000 in damage from an August flash flood.
During a September 2011 hearing hosted by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, leaders from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and other local officials testified to the need for such a program, and expressed their strong support.
Baker said she is also working on companion legislation to help businesses and individuals who have been struck by disaster. The bill now moves to the House for consideration.
Andrew M. Seder