New York City may not qualify for the federal disaster relief its officials are seeking to help cover heavy financial losses incurred during last week's blackout, a ranking white House official said yesterday.
The reason is that many of those losses are directly attributable to looting, arson and other such violence, rather than an "act of God," White House aide Jack Watson said.
"There is a serious question as to whether or not the federal disaster statues were meant to apply to a looting situation," as opposed to a natural disaster, said Watson, secretary to the Cabinet and assistant to the President for intergovernmental affairs.
His comments came after a meeting with members of New York City's congressional delegation. The meeting was requested by Rep. Charles B. Rangel to discuss the possibility of having President Carter declare the city a major disaster area under provisions of the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1974.
The one-hour session ended with dour faces and expressions of disappointment from most members of the congressional delegations.
Watson told the group that no presidential declaration would be forthcoming until the White House receives New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey's application to have the city declared a major federal disaster area. After receiving the request, the President must satisfy himself that "certain criteria are statutorily justified" before it can be granted, Watson said.
Speaking for himself, Watson said: "I'm skeptical about whether or not this (New York City situation) fits into the stauttory criteria" spelled out in the l974 act.
Watson noted that the Small Business Administration has declared the city a "disaster area" - which he said the agency's administrator has the power to do without presidential approval.
The SBA designation, made last Friday, means that businesses hurt during the blackout are eligible for federal loans up to $500,000 at an estimated 6 5/8 per cent interest rate.
A presidential disaster declaration, under the 1974 act, would permit the federal government to make grants of up to $5,000 to families or individuals who suffered losses related to the blackout. It also would trigger federal assistance to the city to perform such functions are cleaning up debris resulting from the blackout.
But before any of that could happen, the state and local governments would have to demonstrate that it is beyond their ability to repair the losses and do the corrective work made necessary by the blackout, Watson said.
And again, he said, there is the matter of whether looting and arson come under the "natural disaster" provisions of the act.
Rep. Frederick W. Richmond, whose Brooklyn district was hit by looters, said the act is applicable to blackout losses.
"A bolt of lightning knocked out the power that caused the blackout. It [the weather] was excessively hot. These two acts of God created the riot," he said.
Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, also a Brooklyn Democrat said the White House was not being sympathetic enough.
"This is not sympathetic to say that New York City, on the surface, doesn't qualify for major disaster relief," she said, adding that the "natural disaster" provision favored rural areas over urban centers.She said New York City was hurt as much by the blackout as farmers and fisherman were by harsh weather last winter.
"We think the White House ought to be responding as sympathetically as possible and as quickly as possible," she said.