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OPINION: A disaster that's not bad enough

By Tracy Warner, The Wenatchee World, Wash.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 14--This can be awkward, asking the government for help. Gov. Jay Inslee recently asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- FEMA -- that our charred segment of Washington be declared a major disaster and therefore eligible for various forms of federal assistance. His request was granted, but only for Okanogan County and the Colville Tribes, and only for so-called "public assistance," which is not assistance for the public, but aid to public agencies with infrastructure bashed or carbonized. FEMA denied Inslee's request for assistance to individuals, even for Okanogan County where some 320 homes, hundreds of outbuildings, a multitude of livestock and many miles of grazing land were turned to ash overnight. As it stands individual grants for housing will not be coming, as much as they are needed.

This disaster wasn't disastrous enough, FEMA explained. Which, in the Methow Valley must make a few people scratch their heads and ask, what do you have to do? The governor's very thorough application to FEMA estimates the assessed value of the homes lost at $28 million. It estimates just 55 percent of the residents had insurance. Secondary economic losses were set at $70 million. That is a pretty heavy battering in a county with only 15,000 households total, a median household income of $41,000, devastation concentrated in the small communities of the Methow.

Gov. Inslee will appeal. Perhaps FEMA might reverse. Powerful politicians are said to be on the phone to FEMA as we speak.

We'll see, said Hank Cramer of Winthrop, who has worked with FEMA on disasters far and wide, is retired from Washington State Emergency Management and was called back to duty for the Oso landslide and the Carlton Complex fires and is now executive director of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery Association.

FEMA thresholds for individual aid are subjective, he said. Individual aid was granted for the Oso slide, which caused widespread death and great trauma for a small community. It was denied, for instance, for the two fires in Colorado that two years ago burned more than 800 homes. Most people are insured against fire, Cramer said. Far fewer are insured against floods, slides, earthquakes, etc. FEMA looks at all that. Trauma counts, and trauma is relative.

"We lost 320 homes. Considering the population base, that's a bigger disaster and proportionately our loss has been greater. I wasn't surprised FEMA said no, but I'm glad the governor is appealing."

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Perhaps further details from the governor might convince FEMA to change its mind. In rural areas like the Methow, many people lack insurance because they have no mortgage, live far from a fire station or water source, and can't afford the high premiums, said Cramer. But, if FEMA does change its mind, people shouldn't have high expectations. The maximum FEMA disaster grant is $34,000, which won't buy you much of a house. The Small Business Administration can declare a disaster independent of FEMA, Cramer said, and can make individual home loans of up to $200,000, with attractive terms. That help is likely whatever FEMA decides, said Cramer.

Meanwhile, for the theorists who might think aid was denied because Okanogan County has too many Republicans, rest assured the dismay is bipartisan. "I'm shocked," said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, who is always frank. Said Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell: "We are extremely disappointed." Said Dan Newhouse, Republican running for Congress: "If this doesn't qualify as a major disaster, I don't know what does. FEMA is completely wrong to deny relief to property owners, and should reverse its decision as soon as possible."

Yes, it should.

Tracy Warner's column appears Wednesday through Friday. He can be reached at warner@wenatcheeworld.com or 665-1163.

Reach Tracy Warner at 509-665-1163 or warner@wenatcheeworld.com.

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(c)2014 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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