Obama declares disaster in Kentucky ice storm

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday declared a major disaster in Kentucky in the aftermath of a massive ice storm that struck the state last week.

The major disaster declaration, which Gov. Steve Beshear requested earlier this week, will allow state and local governments to be reimbursed by the federal government for rescue and clean-up efforts. So far, clean-up from the storm has cost more than $61 million, and that number is expected to climb, according to Beshear's office.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they are still reviewing Beshear's request to reimburse the state 100 percent of the cost of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm — including an appeal to the federal government to pay for the salaries of National Guard troops who spent hours delivering meals and hacking through ice and fallen trees to free trapped residents.

At this point, the federal government will pick up 75 percent of those costs, FEMA officials said.

"Obviously the president agrees that there was a need to assist Kentucky and we're certainly going to do everything we can to do that," said Kurt Pickering, a FEMA spokesman.

The major disaster declaration came days after Beshear asked the Obama administration to bolster federal aid to help pay for emergency work to restore power, hand out food and water and clear debris. FEMA officials said Beshear's request for additional aid to the state's farmers who may have lost crops during the storm will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal funding to pay for debris removal and emergency protective measures is available to the state and local governments and some private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis in more than 90 counties, FEMA officials said. Damage surveys are continuing in other areas, and additional counties may be designated for assistance after the assessments are completed.

In a statement, Beshear said he appreciated the quick approval of his request for more federal help.

"I will continue to pursue 100 percent reimbursement for the seven days following storm and I'm hopeful that we will receive approval for this as well," he said.

At its peak, the storm knocked out power to 769,353 customers in Kentucky. At least 29 deaths have been blamed on the storm, according to the governor’s office. Beshear has called the storm "the worst natural disaster" in the state’s modern history.

As of late Wednesday, the number of Kentuckians still without power had dropped to 157,200, according to the state Public Service Commission. Meanwhile, utility crews continued to work to rebuild electric lines, especially in Western Kentucky. And National Guard troops continued to hand out water and meals, and check on residents without power.

So far, 101 counties and 78 cities have declared emergencies because of the storm.

John Heltzel, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said public utility companies estimate it will cost more than $60 million to restore power. Heltzel said the state and local governments have not yet tallied costs from the storm.

A previous federal disaster declaration, signed by Obama just days after the storm struck, brought federal help to many areas hit by the storm, with equipment like generators to help run hospitals and water treatment plants.

The 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.

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.

"The coordination of relief on the local, state, and federal levels has worked well in our district, and the National Guard has been invaluable," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky.

Other members of the state's congressional delegation, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also applauded the president's swift action on the disaster declarations.

The acting administrator of FEMA, Nancy Ward, was in Kentucky on Wednesday and toured areas that had been ravaged by the storm. Ward also attended Beshear's State of the Commonwealth Address, in which the governor talked about the damage from the storm and the challenge of recovering from it. Next week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to visit the state.

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, applauded Obama for acting quickly on the major disaster declaration. The money will be a big boost for cities, many of which are worse off financially than the state, Yonts said.

"This will mean additional moneys, hopefully not just for overtime but for straight time," he said, referring to salaries for local government employees.

Lexington Herald-Leader staff writer Beth Musgrave contributed to this report from Frankfort, Ky..