Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes' plea to President Carter to declare his state a major disaster area last week sounded more like a Mayday signal than your typical impersonal government request:
At least eight dead . . . roads clogged with drifting snow . . . entire state immobilized . . . National Guard members fought their way to a drift-buried farm house to rescue a family of eight who had burned all their furniture for fuel and "were throwing their shoes into the fire when the helicopter arrived."
This winter's litany of modern-day plague and pestilence continues - death by freezing, babies starving without milk in rural homes at the end of impassable roads, 50,000 migrants broke because 95 per cent of Florida's winter vegetable crops were blackened by frost. Buffalo hospitals running out of food because grocery trucks can't get through the snow.
To the rescue, at times, is the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration which provides funds and manpower when the President declares a state eligible for disaster or emergency relief.
Carter signed nine such declarations - unprecedented both for the conditions and for this time of year - in his first two weeks in the White House, Upstate New York, Virginia, Maryland and Florida were declared national disaster areas and New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio were placed in a state of emergency. A decision is pending on a request from New Jersey.
What, precisely, is done for these disaster and emergency areas? It varies with each case.
"There is no such as 'typical' in the disaster game," said FDAA spokesman R. B. Blair. This is the first time, for example, that paralyzing storms have been severe enough to call for snow emergency declarations and the first time for disaster declarations to pay benefits to unemployed Florida migrants who can't work the frozen Chesapeake Bay.
Although the FDAA turns down a third of all requests, some people think the FDAA largesse is boundless, including a group of imbibers trapped in a Watertown, N.Y., bar for four days when 10-foot drifts sealed the door.
As that enforced revelry paled, a newsman stranded in the bar called a senator and said that, since the President had declared the state an emergency area, they needed help. First, emergency equipment to plow them out and, second, federal relief to pay the bar tab.
The federal disaster relief laws cover a multitude of natural disasters: earthquake, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, ice storms, floods, tornadoes, wind-driven waters, landslides, snowstorms, mudslides, droughts, fires, explosion, even tsunamis (tidal waves caused by earthquakes.)
But this year's drastic energy shortage does not fit into the law. "The President may sign some energy relief bill through the energy agencies, but it just doesn't come under our jurisdiction," Blair said.
Disaster, relief helps alleviate the damage, loss, hardship or suffering caused by damage of such magnitude to warrant major federal assistance. Federal emergency assistance is supplied to supplement state and local effort to save lives and protect property, public health and safety or to avert or lessen the threat of disaster.
Here is how the FDAA worked in two states in the crisis of the past two weeks - Florida and New York.
On Thursday, Jan, 27, Florida Gov. Reubin Askew went a letter to the President - by way of the FDAA - requesting that he declare the frostbitten state a major disaster area.
That day, FDAA regional officers flew to Florida from Atlanta and met with state officials and local groups to assess the destruction and need. Some 50,000 migrant vegetable pickers were without jobs in eight southern counties, with no means of making money and no way to get unemployment. (Migrant laborers do not qualify for regular state unemployment assistance nor do self-employed Chesapeake Bay fishermen.)
The FDAA approved the request, passed it on to the President and by noon, Monday, Jan. 31, Carter signed the disaster declaration. FDAA officials in Florida, accustomed to handling hurricane and flood damage, had to gear up for something new - a fast way to get checks to thousands of needy people.
In the half-day left on Monday, they set up a disaster field office in Riviera Beach, Fla. - an information center where broadcasts were made in English and Spanish telling migrants and farmers where to go to get checks, small business loans, or medical help.
Meanwhile, the Washington FDAA office was transferring $12.8 million in relief funds to the Labor Department for checks. The money was based on the approximately 50,000 who would be eligible for such money during the 90-day period it would take before they could harvest new crops. The money may go up to $38 million in the three-month period, with migrants getting a minimum of $65 per week.
Tuesday morning, the money went from the Labor Department to the state's unemployment kitty in Tallahassee. With FDAA funds the Labor Department set up seven emergency offices to expedite the checks. By 8 a.m. Thursday, when doors opened at the Homestead, Fla., emergency office in South Dade County, thousands of migrants were waiting to file unemployment applications. In two hours, the office processed 1,000 applicants and the line of people continued all day. Back in Tallahasee, they were processing the first checks and special courier services were delivering them to the emergency centers. Officials anticipate an 11-day turnaround period - those who applied on Thursday will get their checks 11 days from that date.
In the last weekend of January, in Buffalo people froze to death in cars and panic gripped much of Western New York caught in blinding blizzards and winds up to 60 m.p.h. The governor's federal relief request came in Friday, Jan. 28, was rushed through FDAA and signed by the President the next day.
Even before Carter signed it, FDAA officials had met with the Army Corps of Engineers, local highway experts and snow removal contractors to undertake the massive job of removing snow that had drifted more than two stories high, to clear the thousands of impassable roads leading to hospitals and lone farm homes, and to authorize and assist the Red Cross and Salvation Army in settling up shelters.
On Monday, massive snow blowers were blown in from Massachusetts; others would come later from Denver.
It was like wrestling with an octopus, one FDAA official said. The decision was made to call in the Army and airlift equipment and men from St. Bragg, N.C. Once there, they had to find places to house the men.
Urgent calls came in Hospitals were running out of foof because trucks couldn't get through, emergency patients were stranded en route. Mile trucks couldn't get through to dairies. Thousands were stranded in shelters and couldn't get home.
New Yorkers griped that it took too long (three days) for some of the heaviest equipment and federal help to arrive. Blair said, "They were there by the time the state people identified the priority roads, what they were going to do. People don't realize that all that has to be decided first."
By Tuesday night, Feb. 1, Army troops and snow removal equipment poured into the paralyzed city. Three giant Air Force transports carried 300 soldiers, 50 pieces of heavy duty equipment, 20 sanitation men. As they struggled with the snow, a fresh blast hit the city on Thursday. By Friday, Feb. 4 - one week after the first blizzard - 720 pieces of snow removal equipment were at work. The people of Buffalo, although accustomed to winter, had never seen the kind of equipment imported by the Army - some so large that they were wider than the major highways they plowed.
On Wednesday there were 84 massive feeding and sheltering services housing 8,000 people with FDAA funds. On Friday, enough roads had been cleared that the shelters were empty and the people were back in their homes.
The cost of such work in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio is uncertain, nor is there any prognosis on how long the emergency status will last.
"We worry about lives today and the cost later," Blair said. Much, of course, depends on the weather in the next few weeks but, by spring, there may be disaster areas declared on top of disaster areas.
Officials are concerned about the possibility of heavy flooding as all the snow and ice melts across the country. Eighty-five per cent of all disasters are floods. The numbers are growing annually because as man continues to "pave over roads and roof everything in sight, water doesn't have anything to soak into," Blair said.
How does one budget for disasters and emergencies, unknown quantities?
The 1977 budget provided $100 million. A supplemental $100 million will be studied in congressional hearings this spring.
With this unprecedented January overload more money no doubt will be needed to get through the usual heavy rains, floods and tornadoes of April.
Last year, President Ford made 30 major disaster declarations and eight emergencies. None was earlier than March and seven were in April.
These disasters and emergencies cost $420.4 million, with the FDAA paying $213.8 million of that amount.
No one has a crystal ball to gauge the disaster or emergency or how much it will cost. "We never had emergencies for snow removal before, as I said," Blair remarked. "But then, we never had a dam break until last summer either."
Blair was referring to the most expensive disaster of last year, the collapse of the Teton Dam in Idaho on June 5, which caused severe flooding and cost $124 million in disaster assistance.