Earthquake in Cantor’s District Brings Deficit Politics Home

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Republican Eric Cantor’s Virginia congressional district destroyed more than 30 homes, forced two public schools to close and gave the budget-cutting House majority leader a reminder that all politics are local.

Shock waves toppled chimneys and gravestones near the epicenter outside rural Mineral, Virginia, and shut down Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna nuclear power station 11 miles away. Louisa County officials estimate the Aug. 23 quake - - which rattled the Capitol and other buildings in Washington and sent tremors beyond New York City -- caused as much as $90 million in damage in the county, said Mineral Town Manager Willie Harper. That exceeds the $85 million non-capital county budget for 2011-2012.

With few, if any, homes insured against earthquakes, there is “widespread damage and people can’t afford to fix it,” said Mineral Vice Mayor Bernice Wilson-Kube. Cantor’s constituents “expect him to help us” get federal aid.

Days after the quake, Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast, knocking out power to 900,000 Richmond-area homes and causing widespread property damage in Cantor’s district.

Political Dilemma

The back-to-back disasters highlight the fiscal and political dilemma confronting Cantor and other Republican deficit cutters when the need for federal assistance is in their own backyards. The disasters also help illustrate the difficulty Cantor and other congressional leaders face balancing the sometimes conflicting interests of two constituencies: voters back home and colleagues who elected them to party positions. The House plans to debate increasing emergency disaster funding this week.

Cantor had said after a May 22 tornado killed at least 125 people in Joplin, Missouri, that disaster aid should be offset by reductions in other federal spending. After Irene, he drew criticism for reaffirming that stance and saying in an Aug. 29 Fox News interview that disaster funds “are not unlimited.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, countered that his state’s cleanup in the hurricane’s wake couldn’t wait for Congress to fight over budget offsets.

Nor were Cantor’s comments well received by some in Mineral.

‘Risky Strategy’

Linking emergency spending for disaster aid with spending cuts is a “risky strategy,” said Buddy Jones, 64, a school-bus driver and substitute teacher.

“He should stand up for his constituents” because “we voted to put him in office to do the right thing and look out for us,” Jones said.

Wilson-Kube said she was unaware of any precedent for Congress matching emergency disaster relief with budget cuts. “I can’t help what he said about Joplin, but we expect some help,” she said in an interview in the town hall.

Cantor sought to clarify his position on Sept. 7, saying he wanted to make sure “people get their money” without having to wait for Congress to act.

The House has voted to appropriate $1 billion, most of it to shore up the Federal Emergency Management Agency, already strained by the Joplin tornado, wildfires in Texas and flooding in states along the Mississippi River. That money, and another $2.7 billion for FEMA, was included in a new spending measure the House will debate this week. The Senate passed a $6.9 billion plan last week, and the two houses will have to reconcile the differences.

“Nobody in need of relief is not going to get it,” Cantor told reporters in Washington Sept. 12.

Argue Later

As Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sought spending offsets for the disaster measure, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu told reporters last week, “We can argue for the next six months, a year or two years about how and when to fund it.”

“This is the time to act on behalf of Americans who need our help,” said Landrieu, chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee.

Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon said it is up to Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to decide whether to seek federal assistance for the Mineral area, and for President Barack Obama to ask Congress, if necessary, for additional emergency funds.

“Eric has nothing to do with the request” for federal assistance, she said. “He personally went down and toured the damage from the earthquake with the governor and said we stand ready to help should federal aid be necessary.”

Plastic Sheeting

In Mineral, workers attached plastic sheeting along the roof line of the one-story town hall to cover holes where a brick parapet tumbled to the ground during the earthquake.

More than two-dozen aftershocks have been felt in the area, residents and officials say.

“We are walking on eggshells, we are wondering when the next one is going to come,” said Susan Groome, director of the Mineral Christian Pre-School.

The earthquake’s rumble -- which Wilson-Kube and Mike Seaton, a vineyard owner, said sounded like a freight train -- struck seven days into the new school year.

“It felt like someone picked up the back of my truck and threw it by the side of the road,” said Adam Richardson, 17, a high school senior who said he wasn’t hurt when the quake made his vehicle skid into a ditch.

Closed High School

Structural damage forced Louisa County school officials to close the county’s only high school and a nearby elementary school.

“We lost space for 2,000 students and we found space” at other schools after the quake “rudely interrupted” the new school year, said Superintendent Deborah Pettit.

The county is busing more than 550 students of the damaged Thomas Jefferson Elementary School to modular classrooms set up outside another school 10 miles away.

The county’s 1,400 high school students are attending classes three days a week at the Louisa Middle School. The 1,100 middle-school students are using the classrooms the other two days and alternate Saturdays until modular classrooms for the high school students are ready in January, Pettit said in a telephone interview.

Pettit and other county officials said the buildings won’t likely be reoccupied for at least two years.

‘Even Longer’

It will be “even longer if we were going to design and build new schools,” Pettit said.

Earthquake insurance will pay for as much as $50 million in repair or reconstruction costs, she said. Rebuilding both schools would cost as much as $70 million, requiring outside financial help, she said. Structural engineers are still determining whether the schools can be repaired, she said.

Though McDonnell declared a state of emergency, county residents are awaiting results of a FEMA survey to determine whether they are eligible for grants to repair or rebuild their property.

Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said McDonnell will decide whether to seek federal disaster assistance as early as this week.

That so few homeowners had insurance against earthquake damage “is kind of in our favor,” though “not a guarantee” that federal authorities would determine the area qualifies as a disaster area, he said.

Cantor’s staff has been helpful in answering questions about the application procedure for federal assistance and how the county can qualify, said Robert Dube, the Louisa County administrator.

The delay is frustrating for people who don’t know “what they are going to do when winter sets in” because “they lost their only source of heat” from chimney damage, Dube said. “They don’t have the means to fix it.”

“Local government doesn’t have a way to step in,” Dube said. “We just don’t have that kind of money lying around.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Mineral, Virginia, at jarowle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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