President Barack Obama granted Kentucky's request for federal disaster assistance in 22 counties on Friday in response to storms and flooding that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two people May 8 and 9.
Four counties — Breathitt, Floyd, Owsley and Pike — will be eligible for individual assistance, allowing residents to apply for grants and loans to pay for temporary housing, repair homes and businesses and replace property.
According to Gov. Steve Beshear's request for assistance, initially dated May 13, the state suffered more than $19 million in damage as tornados ripped across Madison and Estill counties, killing two people in Richmond, and up to 6 inches of rain fell across Eastern Kentucky, filling creeks and sweeping houses off foundations.
"Individual assistance is a combination of things. It's built on a couple of factors like degree of severity of destruction, the status of the population in the area, major destruction and minor destruction," said Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, Kentucky's director of emergency management.
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The fact that homes were destroyed and two people died in Madison County is a factor, Heltzel said, but "the vast majority of destruction was insured houses" in that county. In Eastern Kentucky, there was "a significant number" of uninsured houses — and hundreds were destroyed or severely damaged — so residents of those counties will be getting individual FEMA assistance.
The county with the most damage per capita, according to the state filing, is Owsley, with $1.6 million in damage and only 4,800 people. Close behind were Breathitt and Knott.
Counties in West Virginia, hit by the same storm system that weekend, were declared disasters two weeks ago, leaving some Kentuckians wondering where help was.
In a letter addressed to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford asked for congressional hearings into why Kentucky's disaster declaration came so long after the storm.
Kentuckians felt "discriminated against," Rutherford said. "A degree of empathy must be felt for the plight that the citizens of Eastern Kentucky have undergone in the past weeks."
Area legislators applauded the declaration. "Federal Disaster Declaration Finally Approved," read the headline on Rogers' press release Friday.
The number of counties involved affected the timing of the declaration, Heltzel said. "That's what took a while, you have to go family by family, house by house, to assess damage," he said.
Local and state governments, including the National Guard, the American Red Cross and other non-profit agencies have been providing emergency help such as bottled water, housing and cleaning supplies since the weekend of the storms. Many said they had to wait to start long-term projects until FEMA declared what kind of disaster assistance each county would receive.
Assistance to individual home and business owners will be available only in Breathitt, Floyd, Owsley and Pike counties.
State and local governments and some non-profit organizations will be eligible for federal funding to repair facilities in Ballard, Breathitt, Carlisle, Clay, Crittenden, Floyd, Grayson, Hickman, Jackson, Knott, Lawrence, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Madison, Magoffin, Marshall, Owsley, Perry, Pike, Russell, and Trigg counties.