Residents of Malden and Pine City wait to rebuild as federal aid stops

Almost three months after a wildfire destroyed 80% of homes in their small town, the people of Malden are still waiting for crucial help from the federal government.

Babb’s fire ravaged Malden and neighboring Pine City on September 7, leaving the two towns at the north end of Whitman County virtually uninhabitable. Governor Jay Inslee has called on President Donald Trump to declare the fire a major disaster. This designation would send millions in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide temporary housing and help residents rebuild.

Scott Hokonson, a member of Malden City Council who lost his home in the fire, said many residents of Malden and Pine City were already in financial difficulty and did not have insurance when the fire hit swept their cities.

“They are the ones who are waiting for this statement from FEMA,” Hokonson said. “We are waiting for FEMA, we are waiting for the president, we are waiting for something to happen.”

Gerry Bozarth, a Spokane County emergency management specialist who is on loan to Whitman County to work on disaster relief in Malden, said he has already gone through the process of obtaining a designation FEMA disaster disaster three times and knew how fluid the schedule can be. Yet, he said, this delay is surprising.

“It was completely different,” said Bozarth. “It has been an incredible delay from the three presidential-declared disasters that I have been through in the past 14 years. “

The entire Washington Congressional delegation called Trump to accede to Inslee’s request, and three weeks later the governor broadened his request to include more limited aid for nine counties that were burnt down in a wildfire season that devastated Western states . Trump said the fires in Oregon were a major disaster on September 15 and in California a month later, but Inslee’s September 16 request has gone unanswered so far.

A spokeswoman for Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Republican, whose district includes Whitman County, has been in contact with FEMA.

“Cathy continues to urge the administration to support this request for a disaster declaration and is in regular communication with FEMA for updates,” spokesman Jared Powell said in a statement. “She encourages Governor Inslee and other state and local officials to put the same pressure on the administration so that we can provide support to communities in eastern Washington who desperately need it.”

Washington Senator Patty Murray said she also lobbied the White House to approve Inslee’s request.

“After the heartbreaking devastation in Malden and across the state during this unprecedented wildfire season, the community clearly cannot wait for the help it should have received weeks ago,” said Murray, a Democrat, in a statement. “The Trump administration must act now to grant a declaration of major disaster and provide those who have lost their homes, property and businesses the relief they desperately need, and I will continue to push them to do so.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, also a Democrat from Washington, echoed calls for urgent help.

“The town of Malden has been completely destroyed by wildfires this year, and the community needs help getting back on their feet,” Cantwell, a Democrat, said in a statement. “A federal declaration of disaster will bring vital funds to the community so families and small businesses can begin to recover – the Trump administration must stop delaying and approve this request immediately.” “

Hokonson said he was intrigued by the delay, even as elected officials are pushing the administration to release federal aid.

“This is followed by a lot of people,” he said. “Our state, federal, public, private and elected partners are all following this. They are all very worried as they watch this. It gets a little weirder every day.

Hokonson said that until the President makes a decision, survivors of the fire cannot apply for other assistance to which they may be entitled if they are not eligible for individual assistance through FEMA, like loans through the Small Business Administration.

“It would give people an avenue,” he said, “But we can’t go down that avenue until we hear yes or no.”

Casey Katims, director of federal and interstate affairs at Inslee, said the governor’s team recognized residents of Malden and Pine City were in limbo until Trump made a decision on the request.

“We have contacted the White House to reiterate its assistance in moving these demands forward,” Katims said in an email. “We share the concern of affected communities that response and recovery efforts cannot move forward until a decision is made. Our office will continue to pressure the Trump administration to authorize the aid Washingtonians so urgently need. “

In an email, a FEMA spokesperson only said Inslee’s application was still under review.

While Trump was slow to respond to Inslee’s request, FEMA authorized separate grants to help fight the fires on September 8, a week before the governor’s plea.

Laurie Holien, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management program at Idaho State University, said these “fire management assistance grants” – though intended for an entirely different purpose – could be a factor. in FEMA calculations and advice to the President.

“It’s a rare situation to have a wildfire that qualifies for a major disaster declaration, just because they already have these other grants in place,” said Holien, former deputy director of the forest management office. emergency department who previously worked for FEMA.

Inslee’s letter called for help for individuals and households in Whitman County, as he asked for a separate form of help that can only be used for cleaning up debris and for protective measures. emergency for Whitman and eight other counties – Douglas, Franklin, Kittitas, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skamania and Yakima.

“Federal dollars from FEMA are funded by taxpayers across the country,” Holien said. “It becomes very difficult to justify that taxpayer dollar funding helps individuals rebuild themselves, especially if they live in an area that is frequently damaged by forest fires. “

In deciding whether to recommend to the president to declare a major disaster, Holien said, FEMA deducts the amount already spent through the fire management assistance grants from what the agency estimates the total cost of the damage, by calculating a threshold based on factors such as state and county population. .

“With Oregon you have a lower population index, so reaching that damage per capita threshold was probably easier,” she said. “And with California, very large, extensive damage that was probably a little easier to document, due to the extent of the fires.”

“Those mid-range where you have to wait for all the dust to settle and all the bean counters to complete their preliminary damage assessments might take a little longer,” Holien said. “They can still quite possibly reach that threshold and be able to receive this funding; However, I don’t know how long it will take.

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