FRANKFORT, Ky. — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he's far from satisfied with the federal response to catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky, but acknowledged communication problems have complicated outreach to flood victims.
McConnell visited the Kentucky Emergency Management Operations Center for an update on the government response to the flood-stricken Appalachian region. The GOP leader said he's closely monitoring the situation and kept open the potential of pushing for changes at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I think we have to assess what shortcomings there are and decide whether or not the federal government needs to address them,” McConnell said during a media briefing.
Historic flooding a month ago destroyed homes and businesses and caused significant damage to schools, roads, bridges and water systems across portions of eastern Kentucky. The disaster caused at least 39 deaths and robbed thousands of families of all of their possessions.
During a recent visit to the region, Democratic President Joe Biden declared the federal government would provide support until eastern Kentuckians were back on their feet.
McConnell, who also toured the devastated region earlier in the month, on Monday offered a mixed review of the FEMA response.
“I think a real effort is being made," the Kentucky senator said. "I’m a long way from being satisfied. And to the extent that any of these people on the ground conclude that there need to be statutory changes, we’re certainly open to that.”
McConnell, the top-ranking Republican in an evenly divided Senate, didn't specify potential legislative changes. But he said outreach in the mountainous region had been complicated by spotty cellphone service.
“Just simply communicating the benefits that are already available has been exacerbated by the difficulty of communicating,” the senator said.
Leaders of both parties in Kentucky have criticized FEMA's handling of the disaster. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has pressured the agency to be more responsive but said recently that he'd seen improvement.
Last week, Kentucky's legislature passed a nearly $213 million aid package for the flood-ravaged region after Beshear called lawmakers into special session, The bipartisan measure will pump money into helping repair or rebuild roads, bridges, water systems, schools and other public buildings. It includes money to provide intermediate housing for people left homeless.
The state aid package, portrayed as a first installment of help for the region, will draw $200 million from the state’s more than $2 billion Budget Reserve Trust Fund. The size of the reserve fund surged amid strong state tax collections and massive amounts of pandemic-related federal aid.
Lawmakers from the beleaguered region have stressed the importance of FEMA's role.
“I actually believe that, whenever possible, we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," Democratic state Rep. Angie Hatton said last Friday. "But our bootstraps just washed down the creek. Can’t even find them right now.”
FEMA officials said Monday that the agency has approved nearly $52 million in grants for more than 6,400 requests for aid under an individual assistance program.
PHOTOS: Aftermath of eastern Kentucky flooding
FEMA executive Brett Howard said the agency is “doing whatever it takes” to reach people.
“We’re going to be here the entire time,” he said Monday. “We’re not leaving.”
The average housing assistance grant to eastern Kentuckians under the program is $8,000 — designed to help people make their damaged homes safe, sanitary and secure. The aid was never designed to replace private insurance, FEMA says. Meanwhile, the region's average amount of assistance for other needs is $2,300 under the program, the agency said. Those other immediate needs include medical and dental expenses, moving and storage costs and child care.
Of the 12,600 applications submitted from the region, 2,646 are deemed ineligible at this point, FEMA said. Agency personnel are reaching out to people being denied to review their applications.
Reasons for ineligibility can include when FEMA aid would duplicate benefits from other sources, including insurance. Other reasons can include more technical issues with verifying the applicant’s identity or homeowner status or other missing documents.
Beshear has urged people initially turned down for aid to “keep pushing” and to meet with FEMA officials for a review.