By Marcy Stamper

Just days after committing federal funds to help rebuild public infrastructure destroyed in the wildfire, President Obama denied a separate request for assistance to individuals who lost homes and property in the fires.

Gov. Jay Inslee intends to appeal the president’s denial of a major disaster declaration for individual assistance under Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The individual assistance program would allow people affected by the fire to apply for grants up to $34,000 to help with uninsured housing losses, special unemployment benefits and mental health counseling, although average grants are far lower.

The federal government has not said why the request was denied, according to Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for Gov. Inslee.

“Hundreds of individuals and families were dealt a significant blow by the state’s worst wildfire,” said Inslee. “These people are starting over. They need help with housing. They need help with basic necessities. The state is doing everything it can to ensure these families get the assistance they need to recover from the devastating fires, including federal assistance.”

The public assistance program, which the president granted last week, compensates the county, towns and electric utilities for 75 percent of the costs of damage to public infrastructure and is based in part on meeting a minimum cost of damage. With $35 million in costs for repairs to electric utilities, roads and water systems, and extra labor, the county easily surpassed the $9.3 million threshold.

FEMA assistance to individuals is more subjective and has no financial threshold, according to Hank Cramer, who helped assess private-property damage for the FEMA aid request as a disaster reservist with the state’s Emergency Management Division.

Because every disaster is different, it is hard to compare decisions about the individual assistance declaration, according to Erin Ward, who handles external affairs for the regional FEMA office. FEMA considers a number of factors in assessing requests for individual assistance, including the level of insurance coverage and the concentration of the damage, she said.


Compelling need

FEMA is not permitted to duplicate benefits provided by insurance companies or other federal agencies, said Ward. While the major disaster declaration was approved for public infrastructure, it was determined that the costs of damage to uninsured property were not beyond the response and recovery capabilities of state and local governments and voluntary agencies, she said.

In the appeal, the state plans to challenge this assumption. “We believe we have a compelling need in Okanogan that is beyond what we can meet with state resources,” said Smith, the spokesperson for the governor.

Because houses burned on different days, FEMA apparently assumed that the destruction was not the result of a single incident, said Cramer. The state will make the case that the devastation was all part of the Carlton Complex wildfire and that fires are still burning.

In the Oso mudslide, where 43 people died and 38 homes were destroyed, FEMA quickly issued disaster declarations for both public and private losses. The fact that the Oso disaster was concentrated in one very small town and involved significant loss of life most likely contributed to the decision, said Cramer, who also worked on assessments in Oso.

Individual assistance is meant to help with critical expenses not covered in other ways, but is not intended to restore damaged property to its condition before the disaster, according to Ward.

While FEMA may provide housing assistance to individuals, most disaster assistance from the federal government is through loans administered by the Small Business Administration, she said.

Local groups and teams from the state’s Emergency Management Department are gathering more information this week about the extent of the impact and number of uninsured properties as part of the appeal, said Cramer. 

At an informal meeting last Saturday (Aug. 16) at Twisp Town Hall, Inslee met with Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen, Pateros Mayor George Brady and Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers to discuss how local officials can work with the state to craft an appeal strategy for the individual assistance appeal.

The state has 30 days from the date of denial to file an appeal.