FEMA Denies Aid to Homeowners, Tells Fairfax to Help Its Own More

By Lisa Rein and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Fairfax County homeowners hit hard by heavy rains and flooding in late June are not eligible for federal aid because they live in an affluent community that should address its own needs, an official for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday.

Dan Martinez, the FEMA official, made the statement as he explained the agency's decision to deny Virginia's application for emergency aid for residents of Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria whose homes were flooded during severe storms June 25 and 26.

Some of the heaviest damage was in the Huntington neighborhood of Fairfax. About 150 modest, 1950s-vintage duplexes were inundated by sewage-infested waters from Cameron Run, causing an estimated $10 million in damage. County officials say they have helped about 200 households countywide with temporary housing, food and cleanup, but Martinez said they should do more.

"Fairfax should use its resources to help its own people," said Martinez, who was brought in by FEMA from Texas to oversee Virginia's application for aid, which could have included cash grants, low-interest loans, unemployment assistance and temporary housing.

"It's an affluent community that's able to address the specific needs of its residents," Martinez said.

County officials expressed outrage at FEMA's decision.

"We have affluent people, we have poor people and we have people in between," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "For any federal official to say something like that, he ought to be fired. These people need access to capital that we don't have."

Connolly added that it was insulting for FEMA to decide that the county's citizens were not deserving "even though our federal tax dollars are more than welcome."

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D), whose Mount Vernon district includes Huntington, called the rejection "inexplicable and inexcusable." He said that at least 20 families lack the money for the repairs needed before their natural gas and electrical services can be restored.

"They're stuck in place. They need direct assistance," Hyland said.

Fairfax County is one of the nation's wealthiest, with a median household income of slightly more than $88,000, according to the U.S. Census. Although the average assessed value of a single-family home is more than $540,000, those in Huntington are far below that. On Fenwick Drive, one of the most heavily damaged streets, most homes are valued in the high $200,000s, and many owners lack flood insurance.

"The Huntington community are people with low and moderate incomes," said county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald. "They are not people who make 100 percent of the median income. The fact that Fairfax was able to provide services is an indication of the ability and willingness to help our own residents but should not be a reason to deny them additional assistance."

Martinez said that 200 homes in a county as large as Fairfax, which has slightly more than 1 million people, is relatively insignificant, another reason the application was denied. "Two hundred homes in a sparsely populated community would be very different."

Although residents are not eligible for aid, FEMA notified Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington and other local governments and nonprofit entities last month that they are eligible for assistance. The money should cover the estimated $2.3 million in damage to Fairfax parks and other buildings and costs to remove storm debris. Based on that "public assistance" grant, county officials expected that homeowners would be eligible for low-interest loans.

But a state official said Virginia was doubtful that its application met FEMA's criteria for aid in most of the 13 communities in contention, with the exception of the 150-plus homeowners in Huntington Terrace.

"In places like Arlington and Alexandria, we didn't see enough damage, and we weren't hopeful about it," said Bob Spieldenner, director of public affairs for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. "But we felt better about Fairfax."

The state received a letter from FEMA on Monday denying the claims but offering no explanation, he said. The state can appeal the decision or ask the federal Small Business Administration to offer similar low-interest loans. Spieldenner said no decision has been made.

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