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Obama, FEMA spring into action

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. federal agency in charge of disaster relief, under intense pressure to show the Obama administration can quickly respond to the devastation caused by the massive storm Sandy, said it has plenty of cash to deliver timely aid to the millions of people struggling to recover.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also noted on Tuesday that President Barack Obama fast-tracked funds to areas hardest hit as the agency seeks to prove it can smoothly work with the states to give basic relief, just a week before Election Day.

FEMA Director Craig Fugate said on a media call on Tuesday that it was a rare move for Obama to declare New York and New Jersey areas of “major disaster” even as the catastrophe was still unfolding.

That gives those states direct federal financial assistance to individuals, such as owners of homes and businesses, who can apply to FEMA for aid. Obama made another such declaration for Connecticut Tuesday evening.

“This is extraordinary in that generally we do more thorough assessments and it often times will take longer,” Fugate told reporters.

Millions of people were left reeling after Sandy crashed ashore on Monday evening in New Jersey. The biggest storm to hit the country in generations left a wide swath of the eastern United States struggling with epic flooding and extensive power outages, and the death toll climbed to at least 45.

The president has also authorized “emergency declarations” for a handful of other states stretching from West Virginia to Massachusetts, and the District of Colombia. These declarations authorize FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide a baseline of US$5 million in federal help; the states can negotiate for more.

FEMA has a little more than US$7 billion that it could quickly access to provide relief to those impacted, and could get ahold of another US$11 billion with congressional action.

Fugate, a former paramedic and firefighter who was previously Florida's top emergency management official, said that FEMA has the necessary funds to respond to Sandy.

Fugate gave no indication on Tuesday about how long the cleanup of Sandy damage would take. FEMA is still working on projects from last year's Hurricane Irene, and Sandy appears to have caused billions of dollars in damages — twice or even three times the losses of Irene, according to catastrophe forecasting companies.

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