State Sen. Lisa Baker Aims To Create A State Fund For Victims Of Catastrophes

Steve Mocarsky
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

State Sen. Lisa Baker hopes to create a state fund to aid victims of catastrophes and their communities when the losses caused by those catastrophes don’t meet criteria for federal aid.

As chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Baker, R-Lehman Township, is organizing a hearing to be held on the issue later this month in Harrisburg.

While federal aid is expected to be approved for Luzerne County flooding victims in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene because damage estimates in the county likely exceed a $1 million-plus threshold, Baker pointed to residents of Plymouth Borough and Plymouth Township who were victims of flash flooding in July.

Because the damages there did not exceed the threshold and because there is no state disaster assistance program, the communities have only local funds and residents’ own flood insurance policies to rely on, Baker said.

“As we get more and more of these smaller, concentrated disasters, it’s something we need to address,” Baker said in an interview last week.

Baker said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are still doing a Preliminary Damage Assessment in the counties affected by Irene to determine if they meet qualifications for federal aid.

According to a letter Baker received from PEMA Legislative & Policy Director Vincent J. Hudock, there are two types of federal aid available:

• Public Assistance (PA) is aid for damage to public infrastructure. Damage in a state or county must meet dollar-amount thresholds based on county and state populations to qualify. In Pennsylvania, the threshold is $16.5 million in statewide damages. According to a chart Baker provided, Luzerne County’s threshold is $1.05 million based on 2010 Census figures.

• Individual Assistance (IA) is aid for damage to private property. FEMA typically requires a very large number of homes to have suffered major damage or to have been destroyed for IA to kick in. Currently, FEMA’s definition of “major damage” does not include basement flooding, according to the letter.

Baker said part of the aim of the hearing will be to collect testimony on the type of assistance needed in Pennsylvania for small-scale catastrophes as well as possible revenue sources for such funding.

While the agenda is still being set, Baker said she has spoken with PEMA Director Glenn Cannon and Steve Bekanich and Eugene Dziak, respective directors of the Luzerne and Wyoming counties emergency management agencies, about testifying. Baker said she has also spoken with state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Newport Township, about the hearing because he’s a member of the committee and Plymouth Borough and Plymouth Township are in his district.

The hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 27 at the state Capitol.