With lights back on, next step is getting federal recovery funds

With power to be restored by midnight to all but a few hundred customers in Connecticut, officials said Monday the next phase of recovery from Tropical Storm Irene will be processing applications for the aid that comes with a federal disaster declaration.

Federal Emergency Management Administration centers will be open in all eight counties by Thursday, allowing residents and businesses to seek help with rental assistance and a portion of uninsured losses from the storm.

Residents can register online at disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the beachfront of East Haven, where an updated damage assessment found that nearly 20 homes are total losses.

Malloy EOC

Malloy, flanked by DeLauro, Lieberman and Napolitano, Blumenthal and Murphy.

Statewide, Irene destroyed or caused major damage to more than 300 homes.

“This has been a long slog for all of us,” Malloy said at his final scheduled Irene briefing at the State Armory in Hartford, accompanied by Napolitano and most of the congressional delegation.

The governor said that a weeklong blackout was a hardship and the state sustained millions of dollars in damage, but residents largely heeded the warnings of state and local officials to evacuate endangered coastal areas. An elderly woman in Prospect died in a house fire attributed to the storm, and a canoeist was killed on a storm-swollen river in Bristol.

“It is remarkable for how few lives were lost in the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said.

With good news to finally report on the power losses that affected about 900,000 customers since Irene came ashore a week ago as a strong tropical storm, Malloy and the other officials indulged in expressions of congratulation.

Napolitano praised the Malloy Administration for preparing the state for the storm, then responding quickly in concert with federal officials. State government delivered 230,796 meals and 907,512 bottles of water last week.

“Your federal delegation is second to none in terms of its advocacy,” she said. “They were in constant touch with us during the storm, as was Gov. Malloy, who is my new phone pal.”

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman praised Napolitano and President Obama for responding quickly with supplies and, now, with a federal disaster declaration that will help residents and businesses recover.

Lieberman contrasted FEMA’s response with its performance during Hurricane Katrina, when a Gulf Coast official lamented that FEMA was “just another four-letter word.”

“Here in Connecticut, I want to tell you, we love FEMA. It’s another four-letter word. We love FEMA. We thank you,” Lieberman said.

Echoing the president’s remarks Sunday in New Jersey, Lieberman said Monday the debate in Washington about whether disaster aid should be offset by other spending cuts will not keep the government from meeting what he called a “statutory right to assistance,” once the disaster was declared.

“We don’t and will not default on our statutory obligations to individuals who have been hurt by Irene here in Connecticut and elsewhere,” Lieberman said. “I know the president feels that way. I know that you feel that way, and I know our whole delegation feels that way.”

Napolitano’s tour came after President Obama already had declared the entire state a disaster area, the result of still-continuing damage assessments by FEMA.  No overall estimate is yet available.

Aside from the real work of disaster relief, the Obama Administration also has been careful to dispatch high-ranking officials such as Napolitano to bolster awareness of the federal government’s role and to convey a sense of action.

Obama toured flood damage in New Jersey on Sunday. A picture of the president hugging a storm victim in Patterson, N.J., was on the front page of the New York Times on Monday.

In Hartford, reporters and photographers were ushered into the Emergency Operations Center in the State Armory so they could photograph Malloy, Napolitano and the congressional delegation being briefed.

U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, who was vacationing in Italy when the storm struck, was among the officials on the beach tour in East Haven and at the briefings for officials and the media in Hartford.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy also were at the briefings. U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney participated by phone.

Malloy acknowledged the criticism residents directed at the state’s two major power companies, Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating, repeating his promise to conduct of review of how the utilities and government responded to the storm.

CL&P was down to 2,000 outages Monday afternoon, with all but 200 customers to be brought back on line by midnight. UI had 325 customers without power. Those numbers included about 300 destroyed or uninhabitable homes.

“So, we really have gotten it down really low,” Malloy said.

The governor said nine of the 12 top insurers in the state, including the five largest, have agreed to waive “hurricane deductibles” of up to five percent of damage.

Insurance Commissioner Thomas Leonard said the underwriting guidelines that permitted the deductibles will be tightened.

Napolitano warned that the federal disaster declaration is not a panacea. Much is not eligible for federal aid, notably second homes such as some of those lost on the shore in East Haven.

“We also don’t cover losses when there is  insurance,” she said. “We don’t pay the entire replacement value of the home. FEMA spends enough to get started. It is not there to be a substitute for an insurance policy.”