PROVIDENCE, RI – With Rhode Island experiencing yet another significant snowfall today, U.S. Senator Jack Reed is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with state officials to consider the cumulative effect of this winter’s snowstorms, which have produced record total snowfalls in some parts of the state, in determining Rhode Island’s eligibility for federal disaster assistance.

According to data released by the National Weather Service over the weekend, February 2015 was the snowiest month on record for the Providence area (31.8 inches of snow), and was also the second-coldest February, with an average temperature of just 18.4 degrees.  After today’s snowfall, the state could surpass a cumulative total of five feet of snow this winter, doubling the state’s historic average over the last 30 years.

“The series of severe winter storms that have hit Rhode Island this year have piled up the snow and been a drain on families, businesses, and municipal budgets.  The cost of removing historic levels of snow, in particular, has been a tremendous burden for cities and towns.  I urge FEMA to do everything it can to help our communities from being buried by the costs of keeping our roads safe,” said Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee.

The threshold for federal disaster declarations is high, especially for snow-related events because FEMA uses specific criteria that treat each snowstorm as an individual and distinct event.

In response to the blizzard in January, Governor Gina Raimondo declared a State of Emergency and the entire Congressional delegation sent a letter urging President Obama to issue a major disaster declaration for Rhode Island, should the state request one, and to expedite any and all emergency assistance.

In mid-February, FEMA officials were dispatched to the state to work alongside the Rhode Island Emergency Management Association (RIEMA) staff to conduct a preliminary disaster assessment that will help determine whether the state qualifies for federal assistance.  At the end of February, the state requested a time extension, which FEMA granted, giving the state until March 27 to develop its cost estimates. 

“The state has to do its due diligence.  Officials are still gathering all the facts to make the case to FEMA.  But should the state seek a federal disaster declaration, I will be pushing hard for FEMA and the Obama administration to give their request a swift and appropriate review,” said Reed.  “Taken together, this year’s snowstorms have created a significant challenge to local resources, so I urge federal officials to do everything possible to help them cope.”       

Reed says that if a state request for a disaster declaration is successful, the federal government could reimburse up to 75 percent of the eligible costs of snow removal for cities, towns, and state partners, as well as for the cost of damage to public infrastructure in areas that were hit hardest by the snow storms. 

State officials do not yet have a firm estimate of the total cost assessments for the snow recovery.

Senator Reed also warned that Republican threats to shut down the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could make it harder for the state to get reimbursed for winter storm emergency costs in a timely manner.  While Congress passed a one-week stopgap measure to fund DHS through Friday, March 6, FEMA officials have warned that: “During a lapse in funding, DHS/FEMA will acknowledge -- but cannot process -- requests from governors or tribal leaders for presidential declarations of a major disaster or emergency unless the request is determined necessary for the protection of life and property.  Disaster recovery support for states, tribes, and communities affected by previous disasters will be significantly impacted – recovery payments for presidential disaster declarations will cease because FEMA staff that process Public Assistance payments will be furloughed.” 

Reed says he is hopeful Congress will work together on a bipartisan basis to approve a clean DHS bill, as the Senate voted to pass last week, that will prevent a lapse in appropriations.

“It would be irresponsible to delay assistance to states in need due to this politically-manufactured crisis.  I urge House Republicans to avoid this self-inflicted disaster and pass a clean, bipartisan bill,” said Reed.