Obama's aid decision stirs anger

Since last month's floods, residents and business owners in communities across southeastern Connecticut whose properties were damaged have heard repeated assurances that the federal government would cover their noninsured losses.

Both the state and New London County easily exceeded the monetary threshold needed to qualify for disaster assistance, and last week President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration that allowed aid to begin flowing to the state and municipalities to cover their costs.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that Obama had denied the state's request for individual aid.

The news angered both local officials and residents.

"I'm thoroughly disgusted with him," Beverly Haley of Old Mystic said of Obama. She and her husband, Wes, who have lived in their house since 1952, are facing $20,000 worth of damage after water filled their basement and reached the first floor.

"It shows where his interests are. He's not out to help the common man at all," Wes Haley said of the president while noting that repair costs will take a big bite out of his retirement savings. "There's a lot of people who can't afford this."

Stonington First Selectmen Ed Haberek, who as late as Monday had reassured worried residents that the aid would be coming, called Obama's decision "disgraceful."

"The denial of this aid just puts salt in the wounds of our residents," he said.

Haberek said he was especially surprised since FEMA officials toured the damaged areas with him in the days after the storm, causing what some said was the worst flooding in town since the hurricane of 1938.

Many areas of town that had never flooded before were inundated with water, while the center of Old Mystic was turned into a rushing river.

The denial of individual aid is especially incomprehensible for Pawcatuck residents, who have seen their neighbors across the river in Westerly, R.I., already receive reimbursement checks to partially cover their damage costs.

Residential and business losses in Stonington are estimated at $2 million. The town expects to spend $1.6 million on road and bridge repairs and costs such as overtime accumulated by police and highway workers during the storm.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said the denial proves his feeling that Obama is out of touch with reality.

"No justification he could offer would provide an adequate answer other than the fact that he doesn't give a damn about what people here have suffered," Nystrom said, adding that he witnessed much of the $3 million in damage in his city by walking through businesses and residences.

In Griswold, First Selectman Philip Anthony Jr. said hundreds of people have filled out Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork asking for assistance.

"I really am shocked and disappointed," Anthony said. "I want an answer as to why a declaration for residents and businesses was made in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but not New London County."

On Tuesday the White House press office referred questions to a FEMA spokesman in Boston who said he could only speak about the FEMA process and not the reason for denial.

Rich Harris, a spokesman for Rell, said Tuesday night that he did not immediately know if the letter Rell received included a reason for the denial.

Last week Obama approved Rell's request for a major disaster declaration in response to the storms that struck the state March 12-14 and March 29-31. That declaration was to allow financial assistance to the state and municipal governments along with certain nonprofit organizations but did not cover aid to individuals and businesses affected by the storms.

Rell said she immediately started gathering information for a formal appeal, which must be filed within 30 days. Municipal leaders pledged to do whatever they can to help her with the process.

"This decision is not only disappointing - it's wrong, and I will appeal it," Rell said in a statement. "I have directed our state emergency management officials to immediately gather whatever information may be needed to further support our application for assistance. I will also work with our Congressional delegation and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue pursuing this matter until all avenues for aid are exhausted."

Rell said surveys found 1,315 homes in five Connecticut counties suffered damages totaling $5.2 million, while 116 businesses accounted for damages of $5.4 million.

After learning about the aid denial, Anthony said, he immediately called the governor's office to offer his support for the appeal. "I'm watching some of my residents suffer, the people on fixed incomes who can't afford to replace a water heater or a furnace without some help. I hope they pursue (the appeal) with vigor," Anthony said, adding that he plans to try to contact U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, this morning.

Anthony said he intends to ask more questions about the president's decision when he and other municipal officials meet with FEMA representatives Friday morning in Stonington to discuss the aid for cities and towns.

Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, who estimated there were more than 1,000 homes damaged in that town during the flooding, held out hope for a successful appeal by Rell.

"We're also concerned about the president's decision to not fund the personal-property damages," Steward said, "and hope the governor is successful in her appeal."

Montville Mayor Joseph Jaskiewicz said he was surprised by the president's decision and fully supports the governor's appeal effort.

"I don't agree with the president on this one. The people should be taken care of," Jaskiewicz said Tuesday night.

Although he did not have a cost estimate of damage done to houses and businesses in Montville, the mayor said some were "unbelievable."

"People lost their basements," he said. "I just don't know why he didn't approve this."

j.wojtas@theday.com

Day staff writer Stephen Chupaska contributed to this report.

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