Emergency aid for Isabel relief near $50 million

November 05, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

About $50 million in government emergency aid has been distributed to Maryland residents and business owners who suffered losses in Tropical Storm Isabel, but state budget planners say they are far from determining the storm's fiscal bottom line.

"Total assistance is going to be tens of millions of dollars," Neil L. Bergsman, director of the Department of Budget and Management told a state Senate panel yesterday. "But I don't want to give you a figure because it will be wrong and many times higher than any figure I could give you today."

The storm's price tag is expected to balloon as federal and state officials continue settling private property owners' claims, assessing damage to public beaches, roads, bridges and marinas, and figuring the costs of the 2,400 or so state employees participating in the recovery effort, Bergsman said.

"It's going to be, I think, another couple of months before we begin to have a good total for you," he told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Some hidden costs could be huge. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has put the damage to private shoreline property at $69 million, with assessments of public waterfronts still to be determined, state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said.

The Maryland Association of Counties told the panel that 23 counties and Baltimore City had spent $36 million on Isabel's damage so far, with at least $6 million more anticipated.

But Michael Sanderson, the association's legislative director, also cautioned that those numbers are preliminary and would grow. "We're still learning about the extent of damage in some areas," he said.

Nearly all the money handed out has been federal low-interest loans, Bergsman said. The state will be responsible for paying 25 percent of loans and grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In a big cost savings for the state, FEMA agreed to pay about $15 million to dispose of petroleum-contaminated soil by classifying it as "debris removal," Scott said. FEMA would not be allowed under its rules to handle contaminated soil without that "creative interpretation," she said.

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