FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Gov. Steve Beshear, already saddled with a nearly half-billion state budget shortfall, wants the federal government to cover a chunk of Kentucky's tab as officials cope with last week's bruising winter storm.
On Monday, Beshear asked President Barack Obama for a "major disaster" declaration that would reimburse Kentucky 100 percent of the cost of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm. Damage estimates for state and local governments were already at $45 million and expected to easily surpass that amount, Beshear said.
"This storm is going to cost this state a heck of a lot of money to handle and to get our people back up on their feet," Beshear said. "We think under the circumstances it's certainly justified that the federal government be willing to step up with that extraordinary provision."
Beshear, a Democrat, had previously asked Obama for a disaster declaration that provides for federal assistance, such as generators and bottled water being distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Obama also signed federal emergency declarations last week for Arkansas and Missouri after ice and snow pummeled the states. The storm has been blamed for at least 55 deaths nationwide - 24 in Kentucky - and power outages that peaked at 1.3 million customers
from the Southern Plains to the East Coast.
More than 200,000 Kentucky homes and businesses remain without electricity, and a state emergency official said Tuesday the number of people in emergency shelters is still rising.
State Division of Emergency Management spokesman Buddy Rogers said there were about 7,844 people staying at 135 shelters statewide at the latest count. A few days ago that number was around 6,400 people in about 210 shelters, he said.
"People that have tried to ride this storm out at home, they may be seeing that this is not going to be over as soon as they hoped," Rogers said. "They may be running down on supplies, so they're moving into shelters."
Kentucky is facing a projected budget shortfall that's approaching $460 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Beshear, however, said money was not a factor in saving people from the storm.
"Quite honestly, about the last thing on my mind was how much this effort was going to cost," Beshear said. "Because when the lives and safety of your citizens are on the line, that's just not a consideration."
Instead, Beshear is asking Obama to bolster federal aid dollars to help pay for emergency work to restore power, hand out food and water and clear debris. He's also asking Obama for help for Kentucky's farmers whose crop may have been damaged in the storm, and for Kentucky's National Guard troops to go on federal status - a move that allows the federal government to pay for their salaries.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, also sent Obama a letter asking the president for "timely and serious consideration" of Beshear's request.
This incident is of such severity and magnitude that it
exceeds the capabilities of the commonwealth and many local
governments to respond," McConnell wrote in the letter.
Kentucky had the most power outages last week, a state record of 700,000 customers. By Monday night, the figure had dropped to about
255,000, Beshear said. Still, it could be weeks before some people
have power again.
About 7,300 people were living in 165 shelters set up around the state, Beshear said.
"It's just a massive effort that is not going to end any time soon," Beshear said at a state Capitol press conference. "But, we're determined to continue throwing everything we can at this until we've got everybody back in their homes and everything up and running."
Beshear was planning to tour far western Kentucky on Tuesday. In the meantime, Beshear said he was hoping for Obama's swift approval on the major disaster declaration.
"We're going to make sure that our people are taken care of in as good a fashion as we can, and then we'll sit down and figure out what we'll do from there," Beshear said. "Obviously, the reimbursement from the federal government will go a long way toward helping us resolve those financial issues."
Associated Press writers Janet Cappiello Blake and Bruce
Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., John Moreno Gonzales in Clinton, Ky.,
and Jeffrey McMurray in Elizabethtown, Ky., contributed to this
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)