Top FEMA official to see ice storm damage in Kentucky

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

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

President Barack Obama has no plans to visit sections of Kentucky that were affected by last week’s ice storm, the White House said on Tuesday. Beshear has called the storm the worst natural disaster in Kentucky’s history.

Late Tuesday, Kentucky 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. A week after the storm hit, nearly 190,000 Kentucky homes still had no power.

“Kentucky Governor Beshear 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.” The governor remains optimistic that the request will be approved, he said.

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.

Shapiro said the Obama administration has been in “constant contact” with Beshear and the director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management “to ensure there are no unmet needs or additional requests for Federal assistance.”

Beshear and other state officials generally have given FEMA good reviews for the agency’s response, though officials in some Western Kentucky counties have said they could use even 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 massive ice storm has been viewed by some as the first test of FEMA’s response under the Obama administration. The agency was widely criticized for its handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

Member 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 Republican 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, Republican 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.”

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