Harris positioned to oppose next Sandy aid bill -- Gazette.Net


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Rep. Andrew P. Harris has not yet seen the $51 billion relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy that the U.S. House is slated to vote on Tuesday, according to an aide, but it appears the congressman wants the money offset by spending cuts elsewhere, the same stance he took in voting against a smaller Sandy aid package last week.

“[Rep. Harris] supports a bill that provides aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy and is paid for,” said Chris Meekins, deputy chief of staff for Harris (R-Dist. 1) of Cockeysville. “He hopes the House puts a plan forward.”

The Eastern Shore district represented by Harris, who was one of 67 Republican congressmen to vote Jan. 4 against $9.7 billion for a federal flood insurance program, includes a number of residents whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Eastern Seaboard in October. In explaining his vote last week, Harris said the flood insurance program is broken and should be reformed.

Harris came under immediate criticism after last week’s vote.

“This isn’t the first time Representative Harris has voted directly against the interests of residents in his district,” said Matthew Verghese, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. “This was a bipartisan bill meant to help people suffering from displacement and damage to their homes from Hurricane Sandy. This is not a time when you try to showcase your ideological bona fides.”

The rest of the Maryland delegation voted in favor of the bill, including newly sworn-in Rep. John Delaney (D-Dist. 6) of Potomac. The final vote tally in the House was 354-67.

Another congressman — Rep. Steve Palazzo of Biloxi, Miss. — who opposed the initial aid package and was heavily criticized in the wake of the vote, toured parts of New Jersey and New York on Tuesday and then said he would vote in favor of the next Sandy relief package. The Biloxi area received much federal assistance after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina.

Harris’ district includes parts of the Eastern Shore that were damaged by the storm, including Crisfield in Somerset County. The town of 2,700 experienced major flooding and had to be evacuated.

Close to 600 homes had some degree of flooding, and just less than 100 residents still are displaced, according to city inspector Noah Bradshaw.

“Folks with damage are still going through the process,” said Bradshaw, adding that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials set up shop in the town about a week before Christmas and have been helping residents apply for aid or work with insurance companies.

“A 5-foot wall of water really messes up your life, and it doesn’t happen every day, so a lot of folks don’t know what to do,” he said.

The flood insurance extension will help many people in Crisfield, Bradshaw said.

“The insurance companies won’t pay it out until FEMA backs them,” he said. “This will help because now the insurance companies can get the money out there to people.”

After the Jan. 4 vote, Harris said it did “nothing to ensure the long-term stability of the national flood insurance program,” which he added was important to the Eastern Shore.

“Instead of writing another check, we should have used this bill as an opportunity to strengthen the program to protect people from future floods that we know will come,” he said.

Meekins said Harris would like to see reforms in how the program pays for claims so that a household does not get more than the home is worth, that insurance companies are not being overcompensated and that other states have laws similar to Maryland’s, which requires that homes rebuilt after floods be above flood levels.

Harris will support a reform bill, or may put one forward himself, Meekins said.

As of Jan. 4, more than 850 Maryland households have applied for federal flood insurance assistance, according to the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration.

hnunn@gazette.net