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Plan to update FEMA guidelines passes US House

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 14 passed legislation that would update the Federal Emergency Management Agency's guidelines.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., sponsored the legislation in response to FEMA's denial of West Virginia's request for individual assistance after hurricane-turned-superstorm Sandy. The legislation would require FEMA to reassess the guidelines it uses to evaluate such requests in the future.

The bill was originally introduced in the last Congress in response to the June 29 derecho. That storm affected large portions of the state but federal aid to help individuals was limited under current FEMA guidelines.

Rahall said passage of the bill would help ensure federal disaster assistance programs are reaching those who need it most.

"Too many West Virginia residents have been left for months on end to wonder if federal assistance would be available to them after they lost paychecks, large food stores, medications and property following the monstrous storms we experienced last year," Rahall said in a statement. "I am hopeful that this legislation will be quickly acted on in the Senate and send to the president for signature."

The state's residents suffered combine losses of hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the extended power outages following the June 29 storm. Because those losses did not fall within FEMA's guidelines, the state's request for individual assistance to help households with home repairs and personal property damages was initially denied. However, an appeal was granted and funding was approved for four of the 24 counties hit hardest. A similar individual assistance request to help residents hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in October was rejected last month.

According to the bill's language, FEMA would be encouraged to apply greater flexibility and use more objective criteria when assessing disaster assistance requests, including losses that result from extended power outages. FEMA would have one year to review, update and revise the factors the agency considers when measuring the affect of a disaster.

"West Virginia residents suffered considerable losses from the unforgiving winds of the derecho and Sandy's snowfalls, but because those losses didn't fall neatly within current FEMA guidelines, needed federal aid has been bottled up behind bureaucratic guidelines or significantly limited," Rahall said. "In the true spirit of our state, neighbors helped one another in their time of need and our communities have gotten back on their feet. But those who suffered such significant losses at the hands of Mother Nature also deserve assistance from the federal relief programs their tax dollars support."

This isn't the first time the House has voted to support the updating of FEMA guidelines. The House originally voted in support of Rahall's bill in September and the U.S. Senate included similar language in its bill to provide relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. However, Republicans in the House blocked consideration of the Senate bill at the end of the 112th Congress. As a result, Rahall's bill needed to be reintroduced in the new Congress.

All three of West Virginia's representatives joined 400 other members of the House in support of the bill. No one voted against the legislation, although 26 members did not vote.