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  1. Florida Politics

Weeks later, flood-damaged Tampa Bay still waits for federal disaster declaration

TALLAHASSEE — The pounding rains stopped nearly three weeks ago, yet pleas for federal assistance from flooding damage still haven't been answered for some Tampa Bay residents unable to return to their homes.

Federal officials were assessing damage in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco a week ago, yet there has been no formal disaster declaration, which would trigger hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured-property losses, and other help for individuals and business owners affected by the storms.

The delay is due, in part, to how long it took Gov. Rick Scott to request a disaster declaration for those counties, plus Taylor and Dixie farther north. The Republican governor declared a state of emergency Aug. 6, but only submitted a formal request for federal assistance to President Barack Obama on Tuesday — three weeks after the storms subsided and almost a week after preliminary damage-assessment teams with the Federal Emergency Management Agency left the region. Scott on Thursday blamed the delay on trying to get accurate damage assessments required by the federal government to get the assistance.

"We do it as quickly as we can," Scott said following a briefing on Tropical Storm Erika.

Scott's response to the Tampa Bay flooding differs from his reaction after torrential rains swamped the Pensacola region from April 28 to May 2, 2014. Scott requested a disaster declaration from Obama by May 5, 2014, and a formal declaration from Obama was in hand the next day.

State emergency management officials say those storms were different and easier to assess. The Tampa Bay storms lasted over a longer period and required more time to make sure damage was properly documented, said Aaron Gallaher, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

But those answers aren't going over well with everyone.

"I am confounded why it took Gov. Scott so long to request disaster assistance," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said. "Swift action is vital to our neighbors who have suffered the worst flooding in years and does not bode well for communities as hurricane season intensifies."

Nearly 1,100 homes were affected by the storms that hit the region earlier this month, the state said. More than 600 of those were in Pasco County, which suffered major damage to 100 homes. County and state money to deal with the recovery has helped, but county leaders have said they need more aid. Scott in his letter to Obama said prolonged rain from late July to early August resulted in at least $7.5 million in economic disruption for businesses and another $2.7 million in losses for individuals and homeowners.

Area members of Congress have pushed for FEMA aid. On Aug. 10, Castor and Reps. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, signed a letter prodding FEMA to declare a federal disaster, even though a request from Scott was needed first.

FEMA is still reviewing the governor's request, said Mary Hudak, external affairs director for FEMA's southeast region.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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