FEMA leader to visit Kentucky today

WASHINGTON — The top official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheduled to be in Kentucky Wednesday to tour areas ravaged by last week's ice storm, and to attend Gov. Steve Beshear's State of the Commonwealth Message, the governor's office said Tuesday.

Nancy Ward became acting administrator of FEMA on Jan. 21. It's not clear what parts of the state she will visit, but she is scheduled to attend Beshear's address in Frankfort on Wednesday night, said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Beshear.

At this time, President Barack Obama has no plans to visit sections of Kentucky that were affected by last week's ice storm, the White House said Tuesday.

As of Tuesday night, the state was waiting for a response from the Obama administration on a request to declare a major disaster in the state, help cover storm costs that already have exceeded an estimated $45 million and pick up costs incurred for the use of National Guard troops.

"Kentucky Governor Be shear requested a major disaster declaration yesterday, which is currently under review with FEMA," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro. "We are staying in close contact with FEMA, as they coordinate with state and local officials to assess the continued need for federal assistance and meet the emergency needs of the people of Kentucky."

Blanton said the governor's office has gotten every indication that the federal government is reviewing the governor's request "very quickly."

On Monday, Beshear asked for the "major disaster" declaration that would reimburse Kentucky 100 percent of the cost of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm. Damage estimates for state and local governments were already at $45 million and expected to easily surpass that amount, Beshear said.

Beshear is also asking Obama to bolster federal aid dollars to help pay for emergency work to restore power, hand out food and water and clear debris. Beshear wants help for Kentucky's farmers whose crops might have been damaged in the storm, and for Kentucky's National Guard troops to go on federal status — a move that allows the federal government to pay for their salaries.

Beshear had previously asked Obama for a disaster declaration that provides for federal assistance, inclduing generators and bottled water being distributed by FEMA. Federal authorities said they responded as soon as the state asked for help and promised to keep providing whatever aid was necessary.

"Governor Beshear asked President Obama for an emergency declaration to free up federal assistance last Wednesday, two days after the storm hit; the president called the governor and issued it hours later," Shapiro said. He said the administration has been in "constant contact" with Beshear and the director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management."

Beshear and other state officials have generally given FEMA good reviews for the agency's response, though some county officials have said they could use more help.

On Tuesday, Blanton said the agency has been "very engaged" with recovery efforts in Kentucky, and that Beshear has been in frequent contact with federal officials. "The governor is satisfied that they're throwing every available resource" into the recovery effort, Blanton said.

The huge ice storm has been viewed by some as the first test of how FEMA will respond to widespread disasters under an Obama administration. FEMA has been under the microscope since the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Members of Kentucky's congressional delegation also are watching to see how the administration responds. Both of the state's senators said they were buoyed by the Obama administration's response last week and hope the president will strongly consider the governor's request for major disaster status. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also sent Obama a letter asking the president for "timely and serious consideration" of Beshear's request. As for visiting the state, Sen. Jim Bunning said, "I think it is up to President Obama, but there is precedent for visiting disaster areas just to make sure that FEMA is doing everything necessary and that those affected are getting what they need. This is one of the worst storms in the history of Kentucky, and I know many folks are suffering right now."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader