WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 - The Senate tonight approved and sent to President Barack Obama legislation funding emergency relief for Vermont and other states recovering from natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene.
"Irene will go down in history as one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit our state," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "There is no doubt that Vermonters will pick up the pieces and restore our homes, businesses and communities, but the simple fact is that we cannot do this alone. Vermont, like every other state that experiences a disaster, is entitled to federal help to rebuild our communities. I am glad that in a significant way we were able to accomplish that with this bill."
The vote in the Senate was 70 to 30. The House earlier today approved the measure that will be the first full-year appropriation for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The bill includes funding for a Federal Highway Administration emergency relief program that will help Vermont repair or rebuild roads, highways and 35 bridges that were washed into rivers and streams by flash floods last Aug. 28. The damage estimate has been put a more than $250 million.
The measure also includes funding for the Community Development Block Grant program that will help states and cities rebuild housing and other damaged structures. Disaster assistance through the Economic Development Administration will create new jobs to replace those lost in the floods. The Emergency Watershed and Emergency Conservation programs will help repair the damage to dozens of rivers that jumped their banks.
Sanders singled out Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for his work as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) for making the case for Vermont in the House.
The damage in Vermont was extensive. More than 7,000 Vermonters have registered for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 1,500 families were displaced from their houses, apartments and mobile homes. Some 2,200 roads and bridges were washed away. A dozen towns were completely isolated for almost a week. A stunning 230 of Vermont's 254 towns suffered property damage, including five libraries; 11 office buildings; seven fire stations; and many wastewater and drinking water systems. Ninety public schools could not open on time. Hundreds of businesses and 450 farms were damaged. The largest state office complex may never reopen and almost 1,600 state employees are working out of their homes or cars or temporary offices.
Sanders said Congress has more work to do on disaster relief. Still awaiting congressional action is a funding bill for the Homeland Security Department with adequate funding for FEMA. Congress' failure to sufficiently fund FEMA in recent years has put recovery projects on hold. A six-week stopgap spending bill allowed FEMA to resume those recovery efforts but the fund is predicted to run dry again in December.