North of Boston flood victims now can tap into grants for temporary housing and repairs, low-cost loans and other programs. They can get as much as $27,000 in federal flood assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and loans for repairs up to $200,000 from the Small Business Administration.
People living or working in the flood zone have 60 days from yesterday's declaration to make a damage claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
State Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, was glad the suspense about whether the federal government would help or force the state to go it alone was over.
"I'm glad that now we have a pathway to federal funds for individual homeowners, many of whom have been seriously affected and had their lives disrupted by the storm," Tarr said.
"This is a great first step," said Sen. Steven A. Baddour, D-Methuen. "This is recognition by the federal government of the devastation that has hit the Merrimack Valley."
Senate Majority Leader Frederick E. Berry, D-Peabody, welcomed the federal disaster declaration.
"This is great news," Berry said. "This opens up options for people in cities and towns like Peabody and Salem and every place affected in my district," Berry said.
Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey announced receipt of the disaster declaration at a 6 p.m. Statehouse press conference yesterday.
Healey said the state has set up five disaster recovery centers where people can make claims for federal money. Three are in North of Boston, in Amesbury, Lawrence and Peabody. There also are two toll-free telephone numbers and a Web site that will take claims.
Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman, said flood victims can apply now for federal help. The process works like this:
People can either visit FEMA centers set up across the region or call a toll-free number to make their damage claims. Within three to seven days, a FEMA inspector will come out to their home or business to inspect the damage. FEMA will respond within a week to 10 days.
At that time, FEMA will tell flood victims if they are eligible for help and what, if anything, they will receive. They'll also receive instructions on filing an appeal.
To bolster victims' claims, Healey asked that people take photographs and try to document the damage they've suffered.
Recognizing that federal aid may fall short for some, Healey said that the administration of Gov. Mitt Romney, House and Senate leaders and legislators from the flood-ravaged areas have been working this week on a state relief package.
"We need to realize this (federal assistance alone) is not adequate to get people back on their feet," Healey said.
However, Healey and area legislators said a state relief plan can't be completed, nor the total dollar amount of a package known, until there is a clear sense of the cost of the storm.
Baddour agreed it is too early to tell for sure, but he thinks the damage could be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Beacon Hill lawmakers are busily working on helping North of Boston. The Senate yesterday approved the creation of a single legislative committee to coordinate flood relief. Lawmakers are pushing for tax credits for flood victims and tapping into unspent Hurricane Katrina relief money.
Sen. Susan C. Tucker, D-Andover, said the entire state government is working to aid the flood-damaged region.
"This is a bipartisan effort and it speaks well that we can get this done in a timely manner," Tucker said.
As state lawmakers work on their relief package, Congressman Martin Meehan, D-Lowell, said the state's congressional delegation will consider filling any gaps in FEMA aid to people and businesses.
"I'm hopeful the state will provide additional revenue to support the federal funds," Meehan said. "But we'll also work to see if we can get more federal assistance (to the area)."
Meehan also said he would look to secure a 30-day extension of the FEMA claims deadline.
Some disaster declarations in recent Massachusetts history have taken weeks. This disaster declaration came so quickly, Bahamonde said, because FEMA teams discovered there "was a clear need for federal assistance, so we moved quickly."
This is the first phase of federal flood assistance for Massachusetts.
Federal disaster officials are examining damage to public buildings and infrastructure in advance of Romney requesting federal aid for cities and towns. Many North of Boston municipalities have racked up millions of dollars in damage to public buildings and infrastructure and overtime for police and firefighters.
If approved, FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost to cities and towns. Local government is responsible for the rest. However, Beacon Hill leaders have quietly said the state will not leave cities and towns hanging.
Disaster recovery centers in North of Boston
Amesbury: 110 Haverhill St.
Lawrence: Lawrence Public Library
Peabody: Northshore Mall
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
* Will be closed this Monday for Memorial Day.
Important telephone numbers:
Toll-free numbers operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, until further notice.