The Lead

Pa. General Assembly’s disaster response faces first test with Hurricane Ida

By: - September 17, 2021 2:01 pm

Resident and business owner Brian Matus showing storm damage to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. , Governor Wolf visited the Borough of Bridgeport to tour some of the areas affected by the remnants of Ida. The governor, joined by local officials, viewed and discussed the impact to damaged areas, including businesses, homes and infrastructure. Bridgeport, PA – September 08, 2021 (Commonwealth Media Services)

At the top of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s agenda when it returns Monday is taking on its new, co-equal role in disaster management by extending a state of emergency for flood and tornado damage in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency on August 31 over the remnants of Hurricane Ida hitting the commonwealth.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in May to check Wolf’s COVID-19 powers means that every gubernatorial disaster declaration is limited to 21 days. 

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Because of that, Wolf’s Ida declaration is due to expire on Sept. 21, but the cleanup is far from done, according to a letter sent to legislative leaders earlier this week.

Allowing the declaration to lapse would create legal uncertainty for disaster relief efforts, Wolf wrote, that could complicate the “rather complex recovery phase” and risk any progress made.

The storm caused $117 million in property damage, including destroying 400 homes, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. At least four people died, according to the Bucks County Courier-Times.

In particular, Wolf highlighted that residents in six heavily impacted counties in southeastern Pennsylvania qualified for individual federal financial assistance to recover from the storm. That funding may be threatened if the state declaration expired, Wolf argued.

“Any impacts to the continuity of disaster recovery operations because of an expired proclamation of disaster emergency could adversely impact those individuals in most need of assistance,” Wolf wrote in the letter.

Wolf asked that the Ida declaration be extended until Nov. 29. Such an extension must be approved by a majority vote of the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, acknowledged the need for action.

“Now that we got ourselves involved in that, I guess we have to come back to do our part,” Benninghoff said.

The House was originally scheduled to come back this week, but a delay in upgrading the chamber’s voting technology pushed the return to voting session to this week.

The chamber’s rules for remote voting also expired, and must be extended to allow lawmakers to vote outside of Harrisburg amid the storm and COVID-19.

Suburban Philadelphia Republicans introduced a resolution to extend the declaration until October 27, a month less than Wolf’s ask. It’s due for a committee vote Monday, and could receive a full floor vote Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, did not respond to a request for comment on extending the declaration.

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If approved, it would be the first emergency declaration extended in the Legislature’s new emergency management role.

Both the state House and Senate return to voting session on Monday.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.