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In D.C., Governor Baker lobbies for US storm aid

Success could get millions for state

Charlie Baker made a phone call to check on road and traffic accident conditions while attending the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington on Sunday.Cliff Owen/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As states’ chief executives mingled over the weekend at the 2015 winter meeting of the National Governors Association, Governor Charlie Baker also was engaging in another activity in the nation’s capital: lobbying for federal disaster aid for recovery efforts from the state’s recent massive snowfalls.

Baker met with two top officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to discuss a soon-to-be-filed request for a major disaster declaration. If approved by the president, it would pave the way for a significant infusion of federal dollars — perhaps many millions — to help reimburse cities, towns, the state, and certain nonprofits for cleanup costs.

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“The big thing was to get it on their radar and to make sure it gets the appropriate level of review,” Baker said in an interview.

Baker and other governors attended a black-tie event at the White House Sunday evening and Baker was seated at the president’s table, close to Obama.

The governor said he did not speak specifically about federal aid, but “obviously talked with everybody at the table at dinner, including the president, about all the snow we’ve had and how we could really use some help.”

Obama acknowledged the recent bad weather in remarks to governors.

“We’ve been thinking about you governors from New England, and everything that your citizens have been through this winter,” the president said Sunday evening, according to a White House transcript. “I want to make sure we’re working with each other to get what you need.”

Kurt N. Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the state already is working with FEMA to come up with damage and cost assessments for the snow recovery, which is part of the process leading to a request for a disaster declaration.

Officials do not yet have a firm estimate of how much federal disaster aid would be if it is granted, Schwartz said, but just snow and ice removal costs across the state for four weeks totaled “tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars.”

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Schwartz said he hopes Massachusetts will get three components of federal disaster help:

First — 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government for the cost of snow removal for cities, towns, state agencies, and certain nonprofits.

Second — 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of damage to public infrastructure for Nantucket, and perhaps other counties, that suffered particular hardships as a result of the big January blizzard.

Third — Access to low-interest loans from the US Small Business Administration for those who qualify, to cover damage to property that was uninsured and for businesses to cover loss of income during the snowy four-week period.

Schwartz said under a very strict interpretation of federal guidelines, the state could be eligible for a disaster declaration only for the first big blizzard. But, he said, Massachusetts hopes the federal agency will provide money for the cumulative impact of the back-to-back snow. He said FEMA typically looks at a disaster incident by incident but there is some precedent for the agency taking a more holistic view.

“We are hoping to be able to make the case and convince FEMA that when we’re talking about a declaration, it should cover the impacts of four weeks of major snowstorms, not just one snowstorm,” Schwartz said.

Baker said he emphasized that point to the officials he met from FEMA, including the director of the agency’s Intergovernmental Affairs Division.

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“It’s an extraordinary series of events. You don’t get four major snowstorms in three weeks — even in Massachusetts,” Baker said Sunday morning. “I think we should make as aggressive a case as we possibly can.”

Baker also spoke about getting help from the state’s congressional delegation.

The state’s two US senators and nine US representatives sent a letter to W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA, earlier this month asking him to rapidly approve the forthcoming disaster declaration request.

And Senator Edward J. Markey emphasized the group’s efforts in a statement.

“With bills piling up like the snow from this season’s historic storms, the entire Congressional delegation is working to make sure the state gets the federal relief and resources we need to repair, rebuild and recoup costs incurred from this winter disaster,” he said.

Baker said he plans to connect with Fugate directly at an event on Monday.

Dennis Pinkham, director of external affairs for FEMA’s New England office, said “we’re working very closely with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and other New England states to determine whether or not these incidents, the storms, exceed their ability to cover the damages locally and in the state.”

He continued, “that’s what makes the decision for a governor on whether or not he or she is going to request federal aid.”

Snow and its consequences have been a big topic for Baker at the governors’ conference.

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Speaking at a forum on the economy this weekend, Baker told fellow state chief executives that the pounding precipitation has financially burdened Massachusetts cities and towns.

“It puts an enormous strain on public resources, because nobody budgets for 9 feet of snow,” he said.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.