On Thursday, President Bill Clinton declared a major disaster in Alaska. The declaration frees federal funds to repair damage from severe winter weather and related avalanches.
"The president's action makes federal funding available to affected local governments in the Municipality of Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Valdez-Cordova Census Area," according to a bulletin from the White House's Office of the Press Secretary.
The money goes to local governments to pay for repairing damage, planning to reduce future risks and reimbursing extraordinary weather-related expenses such as snow plowing, roof shoveling and dynamiting avalanche slopes.
The amount of assistance has not been specified, but Gov. Tony Knowles' original request to the president estimated at least $16 million in damage to public property, according to a press release from the governor's office.
On the Kenai Peninsula, preliminary estimates of total costs associated with the avalanches and storms is about $2 million, said John Alcantra, the borough's director of emergency management.
"This is going to mean that abnormal costs ... will be covered," he said.
The borough is still tallying damage, he said.
Problems identified so far include broken power transmission networks and leaking school roofs.
"It could grow," Alcantra said. "I know there is damage to other facilities that just hasn't been identified yet."
Alaskans got the good news about the financial aid after White House officials telephoned Knowles Thursday morning.
"I'm very pleased the administration and (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) have recognized the severity of the winter's storms that began in December and is prepared to help the region recover," Knowles said in the statement. "This declaration opens the door for federal assistance to pay for the costs associated with the avalanche disaster; to rebuild roads and other public facilities damaged by the storm; and to take steps to mitigate the effects of future storms."
The governor's office referred to heavy snows and strong winds beginning Dec. 21. The disaster declaration covers the entire period dating back to Dec. 21, not just the climax of blizzards and avalanches that trounced Turnagain Arm and the eastern Kenai Peninsula in late January and early February.
Under the declaration, the federal government will pay 75 percent of costs and the state will pay 25 percent. An additional 15 percent may be made available to reduce future risks through projects such as mapping avalanche danger zones, according to Alcantra and a notice from FEMA.
FEMA Director James Lee Witt has appointed William Lokey to head the agency's relief effort in Alaska.
Alcantra said state and FEMA officials will tour the peninsula at the end of February to evaluate the damage.
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