But help for individuals is denied once again
By Marcy Stamper
In a replay of last year’s response to requests for assistance with recovery from wildfire, Pres. Obama has approved federal aid to help public entities rebuild, but denied assistance to individuals and households.
Obama issued separate decisions on Gov. Jay Inslee’s requests for major disaster declarations through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Obama granted the public assistance on Oct. 20 but denied the individual assistance two days later.
The public-assistance grants will reimburse county governments and public entities such as electric utilities for 75 percent of eligible costs to repair or replace infrastructure damaged in the summer’s wildfires. That includes infrastructure such as roads and bridges, powerlines and public water supplies. The grants reimburse public agencies for labor, materials and debris removal. FEMA grants also help with preparedness to prevent future disasters.
Obama’s declaration covers eight counties and one tribe, including Okanogan County and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. He did not grant public aid to four other counties and three tribes included in Inslee’s request.
“Our state has faced more than our fair share of catastrophic disasters over the last year and they’ve taken a significant toll both emotionally and financially. This year alone, our state has spent more than $100 million just in firefighting costs. This financial assistance will help our state as we recover from these devastating events,” said Inslee in a statement about the FEMA aid.
The individual assistance requested by Inslee would have helped uninsured individuals and households affected by the wildfires. In his request, Inslee cited an initial assessment of 146 homes destroyed and another 476 damaged across the state, two-thirds of which were uninsured or underinsured. According to a tally by Okanogan County Emergency Management, 84 homes, 89 cabins and 107 outbuildings were destroyed in Okanogan County alone.
“This is very disappointing news. This is the second time in as many years that we’ve been denied individual assistance following a major fire,” Inslee said. “We have homeowners that have lost everything.”
Some 800 square miles burned in Okanogan County this year — almost twice as much as in the Carlton Complex — but much of the land that burned this year was undeveloped, and fewer structures were destroyed, according to Inslee’s request.
Last year, Okanogan County received the FEMA public-assistance declaration but individual assistance was turned down even after Inslee appealed the president’s decision. Public entities in Okanogan County received $23.7 million in reimbursement for damage from the Carlton Complex Fire.
For public assistance, affected areas must have sustained a certain dollar amount of damage, based on population. The counties that didn’t receive aid had not met the threshold, according to Karina Shagren, communications director for the Washington Military Department.
Individual assistance is more subjective. In the denial letter to Inslee, the associate administrator of the FEMA Office of Response and Recovery wrote, on behalf of the president, “It has been determined that the impact to individuals and households from this event was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance.”
“FEMA looks at the concentration of damage — that’s one component. It’s very hard to show concentration in rural Washington,” said Shagren.
The individual assistance program allows people affected by the fire to apply for grants up to $34,000 for housing, unemployment benefits and mental health counseling, although average grants are far lower, typically around $3,000, according to Shagren.
“People think the grants would replace homes and property, but it’s not that type of program,” said Shagren. “It’s not to make people whole, but just to jumpstart the recovery,” she said.
Reimbursement for governments, utilities
In addition to governments and utilities, private nonprofits and emergency medical providers that perform a governmental function — such as providing social services — are eligible to apply for the public-assistance funds.
FEMA will appoint a coordinator to assist local governments in documenting damage, estimating the cost of repairs and obtaining reimbursement. Repair work must be completed within 18 months of the declaration.
Public assistance will also reimburse local governments for expenses connected with firefighting, even if there was no direct damage to infrastructure. For example, the town of Twisp will submit overtime expenses for law enforcement, public works and administrative staff during the fire, and for the use of town water for fire suppression, according to clerk/treasurer Jackie Moriarty.
Under the public-assistance program, the state decides how to handle the 25 percent not covered by FEMA. Last year Washington picked up half of that and local jurisdictions were responsible for the remainder.
Obama also approved public assistance for three counties in Western Washington affected by a severe August windstorm.
Additional designations may be made at a later date if warranted by further damage assessments, according to the federal coordinating officer for recovery operations. The governor will not be appealing Obama’s denial of individual assistance. “We have no additional information to provide FEMA that could potentially change the decision,” said Jaime Smith, Inslee’s deputy communications director.