PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A key U.S. Senate panel on Thursday approved a bill to provide $149 million in aid for Rhode Island and Tennessee along with other steps to help the states recover from this spring's devastating floods.
The money is included in a $58.8 billion war funding measure approved 30-0 by the Senate Appropriations Committee. A floor vote is expected before Memorial Day. The House has not yet voted on the measure.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is a member of the committee and pushed for the money. He said he expects more aid is coming from the federal government.
"This is just the first step," he said.
The flooding in Rhode Island prompted President Barack Obama to declare the state a disaster area, and Reed said the preliminary damage estimate from the state is upward of $150 million. In Tennessee, the mayor of Nashville has estimated at least $1.5 billion in flood damage to the city alone from flooding two weeks ago.
The bill includes $100 million in Community Development Block Grants and $49 million in Economic Development Assistance Grants for the two states to split. Reed said the money could be used for a variety of projects, such as fixing flood-damaged roads and bridges or putting in a berm or dyke to prevent flooding.
When asked how the money would be divided between the states, he noted it had been several weeks since Rhode Island was flooded.
"At this point, I know they want to move money to those places that are ready to receive it," he said.
The bill also allocates money to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $217 million to the Army Corps of Engineers for flood prevention and recovery, which is available for projects nationwide, Reed said.
The Rhode Island disaster declaration triggered some federal money, but the state and communities were required to match 25 percent of it to qualify. The bill approved Thursday would reduce the match from cities, towns and the state to 10 percent, which could save them millions of dollars, Reed said.
That's key for Rhode Island, which has seen years of economic malaise and unemployment rates in the double digits for more than a year. The unemployment rate in March stood at 12.6 percent, and the state has said the flooding in March and April may have put 4,000 people out of work, at least temporarily.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took a helicopter tour over Rhode Island while it was flooded in early April, witnessing waterlogged shopping malls and homes with people's possessions laid out to dry in their yards. She called the flooding "significant" and pledged the federal government's help in the months to come.