HARRISBURG – Nearly a year after Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Bekanich told a panel of state lawmakers that a fund is needed to help disaster victims when federal damage thresholds are not met, state Sen. Lisa Baker announced legislation that will do just that.
"A flash flood that washes out only a small portion of a township can be just as devastating to a family or a community as a hurricane that rips through half the state, yet today's disaster assistance programs fail to recognize that fact," Baker, R-Lehman Township, said in announcing Senate Bill-1585. "Although judged to be ‘small' by federal standards, these catastrophes wipe out homes, streets, bridges and municipal budgets. The state should play a role in helping communities recover. The gaps are hurting people who experience tremendous loss but don't meet disaster guidelines."
Baker and state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, are two sponsors of SB-1585, aimed at helping municipalities and flood victims cope with localized disasters by establishing a state disaster assistance program.
"The program would give state grants to victims to assist with uninsured losses caused by flash floods, fires, snowstorms, tornadoes, landslides, hazardous material spills and other emergencies, but (which) fall below the state's $16.5 million threshold for federal aid," Baker said.
When Bekanich testified last year, he told the panel: "One of the most difficult things I have to do in my job is tell people that I cannot provide them the financial help that they need when they are faced with their own personal disaster. A state program will make all of our jobs that much easier."
Bekanich testified before the joint House-Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. Baker serves as chairwoman of the committee that was charged with examining whether Pennsylvania should establish a state disaster assistance program.
Under SB-1585, state assistance would be limited to grants to help repair damage to primary residences, personal property and public facilities. Debris removal also would be an eligible expense. Some 25 states have established state disaster assistance programs.
Baker said funding would come from the Johnstown Flood Tax, which was established in 1936 with the express purpose of aiding flood victims. Unspent money would be returned to the state budget. The Johnstown Flood Tax is an 18 percent levy on alcohol.
Bekanich said Wednesday that he has been in constant contact with Baker, Yudichak and other state legislators to establish the state fund.
"No doubt, this is definitely something that is needed," Bekanich said. "It would help immensely -- especially those tax-strapped communities -- to come back from these events."
Plymouth Township and Plymouth Borough suffered severe flash flooding damage last July from heavy downpours and in September after rain from Tropical Storm Lee swelled the Susquehanna River to a record 42.66 feet, causing severe flooding in areas not protected by the Wyoming Valley Levee System. An estimated 130 Luzerne County businesses and hundreds of residences along the Susquehanna were damaged by the flooding.
Bill O'Boyle, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7218.