Cold Weather Didn’t Make Water Crisis ‘Major Disaster,’ FEMA Says

Charleston Gazette
21 May 2014
By David Gutman, Staff writer

Cold weather in January and February did not rise to the level of a “natural catastrophe” sufficient to make January’s water crisis in the Charleston area a “major disaster,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled Wednesday.

For the second time, FEMA denied Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s request to declare the water crisis a “major disaster.” Doing so could have brought the region more federal money to reimburse costs associated with the water crisis.

“We reaffirm our original findings that the event does not meet the legal definition of a ‘major disaster,’” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate wrote.

U.S. law gives a specific definition for “major disaster.”

“Any natural catastrophe (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, winddriven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snow storm, or drought), or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood or explosion,” which the president determines causes severe damage.

Because the water crisis was not a natural disaster, fire, flood or explosion, FEMA ruled, it did not meet the definition of “major disaster.”

Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the appeal was an attempt to persuade FEMA that current law is too narrowly defined.

“Had the appeal convinced federal officials to adopt a broader view of what constitutes a major disaster, the resulting aid could have helped in such areas as hazard mitigation -- assistance in identifying and addressing what contributed to this crisis,” Messina said.

Immediately after the Jan. 9 chemical leak, President Obama declared the event an emergency and sent federal assistance to the nine affected West Virginia counties. That “direct federal assistance” covered only water distributed and other tasks performed directly by FEMA.

Near the end of January, Tomblin wrote requesting “emergency protective measures” -- federal reimbursement for actions taken by state and local agencies.
FEMA denied that request two weeks later.

Tomblin then wrote back appealing that decision and also requesting a “major disaster” declaration.

Upon that appeal, FEMA reconsidered. The agency granted “emergency protective measures,” which could mean reimbursement for about $2 million in costs to state and local agencies, while denying the “major disaster” declaration,

Public agencies are in the process of applying for that money, in which FEMA will reimburse them for up to 75 percent of what they spent responding to the crisis.
At the time, Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the state only applied for a major disaster declaration as an alternate option to get the aid that FEMA approved.

“We probably wouldn’t have seen anything different,” if FEMA had approved the major disaster declaration, Gianato said in April.

Tomblin appealed FEMA’s denial of the “major disaster” declaration, arguing that cold weather “significantly hindered” recovery after the chemical leak and elevated the event to a natural disaster.

“The natural catastrophe of extreme winter weather conditions, including below-freezing temperatures and multiple snow storms was responsible for the severity and duration of the water outage following the chemical spill,” Tomblin wrote.

FEMA was not convinced.

“After a thorough review of all the information,” Fugate wrote, “the event does not meet the legal definition of a ‘major disaster.’”

Reach David Gutman at or 304-348-5119.

- See more at: