Aid Denial Explanation Incorrect, FEMA Says

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that an agency official misspoke when he said flooded Fairfax County homeowners were denied federal aid because they live in an affluent community.

The comment came as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced an appeal of FEMA'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 rainstorms in late June.

"Despite the generosity of voluntary agencies and the outstanding efforts of all the county and city governments, hundreds of families still face significant financial challenges to repair their homes," Kaine said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Dan Martinez, the FEMA official overseeing Virginia's application for aid, said those local governments, not the federal government, should help the homeowners get back on their feet. Fairfax offered temporary housing, food and help with storm cleanup to about 200 homeowners, including 150 in the Huntington neighborhood, who suffered the most damage. But the state hoped FEMA would grant low-interest loans, cash grants, unemployment assistance and temporary housing to them and those in 13 other communities across Virginia.

Martinez, assigned to the Virginia case from his home base of Texas, said Fairfax "should use its resources to help its own people." He described the county as wealthy and said that wealth was largely the reason for the denial of aid.

But late yesterday, national FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said Martinez's remarks "were not typical and were inaccurate."

"The spokesman's comments were . . . not typical of a standard FEMA response," Walker said. "We don't look at the average or mean income and make a decision based on that."

Martinez's comments generated indignant reactions from Fairfax officials and residents of Huntington, whose homes are assessed far below the county's average of $540,000. Many Huntington residents do not have flood insurance.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) called on members of the state's congressional delegation yesterday to ask FEMA to discipline Martinez.

Walker, who lives in Oakton, said FEMA must follow a "very stringent set of standards" in determining who is eligible for disaster aid, including how extensive the damage is and the state's ability to help homeowners in need. If many homeowners in the affected area have flood insurance, that will lower the chances. In Virginia's case, those all were factors in the denial, he said.

"Our main job is to come in when a state has been overwhelmed," Walker said.

Martinez, who referred calls to the public affairs office in Washington, will not lose his job, Walker said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company