Bush declares federal disaster after storms

? President Bush has declared portions of western Kansas a major disaster, clearing the way for federal dollars to help the state recover from winter storms that left thousands without power.

Federal funds will be available to state and local governments in 44 counties for debris removal and other emergency measures, the White House announced late Sunday. The declaration also makes funds available to certain nonprofit organizations to help with recovery efforts.

“This federal assistance will enable local officials to restore vital public infrastructure damaged by these storms,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., complained that the declaration was not an adequate response because it only offers the state access to two of the seven major types of public disaster assistance.

In a meeting Monday at the White House, Roberts urged President Bush to expand the declaration to include other aid such as assistance for public utilities, roads, bridges, water control facilities and public buildings.

Roberts said federal officials did not appear to realize how devastating the storm had been or how quickly action was needed.

“We are told that debris removal does not cover the removal of snow,” Roberts said in an emotional speech on the Senate floor.

“If you’re from western Kansas or you’re out on the high plain and you have 30 inches of snow and 15-foot snowdrifts and you can’t remove the snow because it can’t be categorized as debris, how on earth can you reach the debris that’s underneath the snow?” Roberts said.

Federal officials are having meetings later this week to determine whether Kansas qualifies for more aid.

The Kansas National Guard uses a Black Hawk helicopter to drop bales of hay for feeding cattle south of Goodland. The Guard worked last week to provide food and power to people and animals in western Kansas who were affected by a late December snowstorm. President Bush has declared 44 counties in the affected area a major disaster, allowing residents to obtain federal government aid.

Counties covered by the declaration are: Cheyenne, Clark, Comanche, Decatur, Edwards, Ellis, Finney, Ford, Gove, Graham, Grant, Gray, Greeley, Hamilton, Haskell, Hodgeman, Jewell, Kearny, Kiowa, Lane, Logan, Meade, Morton, Ness, Norton, Osborne, Pawnee, Phillips, Rawlins, Rooks, Rush, Russell, Scott, Seward, Sheridan, Sherman, Smith, Stafford, Stanton, Stevens, Thomas, Trego, Wallace and Wichita.

The Kansas National Guard estimated about 8,200 electricity meters remain off-line across the state, compared with about 11,200 that were off-line Friday, spokeswoman Sharon Watson said.

At the peak of the storms that swept the state Dec. 28-31, more than 66,300 customers were without power. The storm blanketed some counties with nearly 3 feet of snow, with drifts as high as 15 to 16 feet.

State officials estimate it could be more than two weeks before all service can be restored.

Roberts said the situation was dire, with the storm toppling 10,000 utility poles and destroying 21 major electric towers. Some residents are paying up to $50 per day for diesel generators just to stay warm, he said.

“The bottom line is that the state of Kansas needs its federal government to assist in restoring power and clearing massive amounts of snow,” Roberts said. “And they need this assistance immediately, not next week or next month or next year.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has scheduled damage surveys of areas affected by the storms. Other counties may be included after the assessments are completed.

The declaration also makes active the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for the entire state, which assists state and local governments in preventing or reducing risk to life and property from natural or other hazards.

Sebelius has asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to declare the same counties agricultural disaster areas to help minimize economic losses for livestock producers affected by the storm.