FEMA heads west to ease blizzard damage

DENVER – President Bush signed emergency declarations allowing federal aid to help Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas recover from back-to-back blizzards that shut down highways and knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes.

Thirteen Colorado counties – including the cities of Denver, Boulder and Pueblo – were included in the declaration issued Sunday for the Dec. 18-22 blizzard. A second declaration was issued for Otero County in southeastern Colorado for the Dec. 28-31 storm, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jerry DeFelice said.

The move opens the way for FEMA to reimburse local governments and some civilian agencies for snow removal, police overtime, shelter operations and emergency medical care.

Colorado’s request for economic relief for ranchers at risk of losing cattle because of the storms remains under review, said FEMA congressional affairs specialist Thomas Glen.

“We’re waiting on pins and needles” to hear whether ranchers will receive federal disaster aid as requested by the state, said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Up to 15,000 cattle may have been killed and more than four times higher than the 3,500 cattle that state officials estimated, Fankhauser said. The smaller number included only range cattle and did not account for thousands of livestock in feedlot pens.

State officials have said many ranchers will not have an accurate count of their losses until more snow melts. Fankhauser estimated that up to one-third of ranchers in the area have not located all their cattle.

In Nebraska, a declaration issued Sunday will help 57 counties affected by widespread power outages caused by the storms, FEMA said.

Officials estimated thousands of utility customers remained without power yesterday – nine days after the worst of the storm. And high winds with gusts up to 60 mph forecast for part of the state yesterday could cause new problems for crews restoring power in central and northeastern Nebraska, said Jon Sunneberg, a spokesman for the Nebraska Public Power District.

In Kansas, 44 counties and some nonprofit organizations in the western part of the state will receive aid for debris removal and other emergency measures.

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

In a meeting yesterday 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.

He 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 snow drifts and you can’t remove the snow because it can’t be categorized as debris,” Roberts said, “how on earth can you reach the debris that’s underneath the snow?”