ALLENTOWN, Pa. (CBS/AP) – The enormity of the devastation caused by last week’s record flooding began to emerge as President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration for 19 Pennsylvania counties and state officials on Tuesday released a very preliminary estimate of more than 4,500 homes destroyed or damaged — a number sure to rise significantly as more damage reports come in.
In response to the statewide flooding problems, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced Tuesday that FEMA has declared that residents of Philadelphia, who experienced damages due to Hurricane Irene, are eligible for Individual Assistance as a result of the Presidential Disaster Declaration on September 3.
The declaration allows individuals and households who suffered damages from August 26 to August 30 to apply for assistance.
The disaster declaration frees up federal aid to individuals and businesses, including cash grants for temporary housing and home repairs as well as low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses. It also makes federal funds available for hazard mitigation.
Megan Kanyuck, 26, of hard-hit Mocanaqua in Luzerne County, lost nearly everything when her apartment was deluged by several feet of Susquehanna River water.
The supermarket bakery worker, who has a 2-month-old daughter and not much money to start over, said she plans to apply for federal disaster assistance to help get her back on her feet.
“I’m praying to God I get at least a little bit so I can find another place to live,” she said.
Vice President Joe Biden planned to travel to northeastern Pennsylvania on Friday to survey storm damage, the White House announced.
At least 4,542 homes and businesses in the counties covered by Tuesday’s declaration were damaged to some extent by flooding caused by remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, including more than 2,000 that were destroyed or sustained major damage, according to Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokesman Cory Angell.
But many counties and municipalities only performed a superficial assessment or concentrated on a few hard-hit areas as they worked quickly to meet minimum federal criteria for inclusion on the disaster list.
In Dauphin County alone, for example, a more complete tally revealed the storm destroyed or caused major damage to nearly 1,400 homes, businesses and apartment buildings — and damage teams have yet to survey more than half the county’s municipalities, said Scott Burford, the county’s deputy chief clerk and emergency management agency spokesman. He estimated “north of $93 million” in damage to private property so far.
In Columbia County, where the Susquehanna crested at 32.75 feet at Bloomsburg, breaking a record set in 1904, officials reported 1,000 buildings with damage.
“That very well could be 2,000 by the time all this gets put together,” said John Thomas, spokesman for the county’s emergency management agency.
Lee, he added, “is going to be the measuring stick for a long while.”
Wyoming County reported major and minor damage to 3,200 structures.
“We’re banged up here pretty good,” said Gene Dziak, the county’s emergency management coordinator.
Teams are assessing damage in Philadelphia, Chester, Bucks, Montgomery and Northampton counties to determine whether they also should qualify for federal disaster assistance.
Beyond the devastation of private property, extensive flooding also damaged hundreds of roads, bridges, public buildings and water and sewer treatment plants in Pennsylvania. More than 140 state roads remained closed Tuesday, while seven sewer-treatment plants were out of service and 15 water-treatment plants issued boil-water advisories, either because they were totally offline or were having trouble producing potable water.
State Agriculture Secretary George Greig toured several farms and said the storm caused widespread crop damage.
Gary Rinehimer, 58, of Plymouth Township — a devastated riverfront community just downstream from Wilkes-Barre’s levee system — said the sidewalks there were filled with mounds of trash and ruined furniture that have yet to be picked up, even though the Susquehanna receded days ago.
Rinehimer, whose home and auto restoration business sustained major damage, said the stench was becoming unbearable.
“What are they waiting for? Who’s in charge to get this garbage off the streets? … This is becoming a health risk,” he said.
Leaders of the 157-year-old Bloomsburg Fair, meanwhile, might cancel the event for the first time in its history because the fairgrounds were inundated with 10 to 12 feet of water, the Press-Enterprise of Bloomsburg reported.
In Luzerne County, a dozen people were charged with the looting of evacuated homes. In one case, a woman stole a big-screen television, a computer and various other items from a neighbor whose home she’d agreed to watch, police said. In another, two men allegedly stole a shotgun, two rifles, watches, computers and tools.
District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll called the burglaries “despicable.”
At least 11 people were killed in last week’s floods, according to state officials.
To apply for assistance, register online at http://www.disasterassistance.gov, by web enabled mobile devices at m.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Disaster assistance applicants, who have a speech disability or hearing loss and use TTY, should call 1-800-462-7585 directly; for those who use 711 or Video Relay Service (VRS), call 1-800-621-3362. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time) seven days a week until further notice.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)