HARRISBURG - The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday its disaster relief fund could run out sometime next week, potentially bad news for Pennsylvania flood victims who are trying to get help.
FEMA officials said a spending dispute in Congress could mean there will not be federal money to help state residents, although that was not certain. House Republican leaders are trying to get the votes to approve a $3.7 billion disaster aid package that was surprisingly defeated on Wednesday.
The relief fund, which has never been completely empty, fell to $210 million on Thursday.
"If Congress does allow the balance of the Disaster Relief Fund to reach zero, there are laws that govern federal agency operations in the absence of funding," said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen. "The administration is committed to doing all it can under current legal authorities to continue vital operations, including assistance to individuals. But there is no question this is a critical situation and one we are watching closely."
FEMA has approved nearly $40 million in grants so far for Pennsylvanians victimized by this month's flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, and more than 21,000 individuals and families have registered for aid.
By late Wednesday, the agency had approved payments totaling $38.5 million to 7,755 applicants. Most of that assistance is for home repairs and rental housing for people whose homes were destroyed.
Among those waiting to hear is Annmarie D'Ottavio, who saw water reach the first floor of her home by Muncy Creek in Sonestown. D'Ottavio, 35, said her mother put in a FEMA relief application at a nearby forest station last week.
She had never seen the creek get so high.
"It would pour over the banks, but never did it pour into people's homes," she said Thursday.
A few miles away in Muncy Valley, Deb and Rich Fry estimated the losses to their business, Katie's Country Store, at about $35,000 in merchandise. Flood insurance does not cover the contents of their buildings, and they're currently working on paperwork to submit to the Small Business Administration.
Edward and Deb Johns' blue one-story home, about 10 miles north of Montoursville, was inundated by water after the Loyalsock Creek spilled over its banks. They plan to remodel, though they are bracing for the financial impact. The couple also owned the flooded home next door in which Deb Johns' mother lived. She is now living with a sister.
"It's causing us to incur debt at this age, particularly at this age," said Edward Johns, 59, a construction foreman. "You can only work for so long. Certainly, it's going to affect our ability to retire. We had hoped at 62, but that's completely out of the question now."
Federal and state officials also have more than doubled the number of disaster recovery centers in central and eastern Pennsylvania to cover 16 counties. The counties are Bradford, Bucks, Chester, Columbia, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lycoming, Luzerne, Montgomery, Philadelphia, Schuylkill, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming.
In Pennsylvania, a county-by-county assessment of the damage remained incomplete, but Dauphin County put the total toll for residents and businesses at $151 million. Crop damage reached $820,000, said Scott Burford, the deputy chief clerk.
A package of state relief bills have been proposed, including a grant program to help families whose losses exceed the cap on federal benefits, a real estate tax abatement for badly damaged properties and millions of dollars in borrowing.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has confirmed at least five deaths resulted from the flooding, while seven others, including two people who are missing, were suspected to be storm-related but that has not been confirmed.
In the 19 counties covered by a disaster declaration, PEMA has said more than 4,500 structures were damaged, including at least 346 that were destroyed and 1,747 that sustained major damage.
Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said inspections of roads have been completed - 11,871 miles in all - and 2,389 of the more than 2,400 bridges have been checked, Chizmar said. Of the 559 road closures forced by the flooding, 48 remain in effect, primarily in the north-central region, he said.
Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Sonestown and Muncy Village and Genaro Armas in Montoursville contributed to this report.