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Trump Overrules FEMA, Approves California's Request for Help

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said earlier Friday that California's request did not meet threshold requirements for aid for a disaster declaration related to six wildfires that broke out in September.

(TNS) — President Trump reversed a decision by a federal agency Friday and approved California's request for a disaster declaration related to six wildfires that broke out in September.

"Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response," Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement released Friday.

In turning down the disaster declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said earlier Friday that California's request did not meet threshold requirements for aid. But it noted the state could appeal the denial for federal help in paying for damages that Newsom said could top $364 million.

Brian Ferguson , a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said the state would do just that, but it's unknown whether the state had begun a formal appeal before Trump overrode the FEMA decision. The White House had earlier said Trump agreed with FEMA's decision, but there were immediate indications that would change. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was in contact with Trump and Newsom about the situation, his office said, and was working with GOP Reps. Tom McClintock , Mike Garcia and Doug LaMalfa to ensure that Californians got the assistance.

"The governor and Leader McCarthy spoke and presented a convincing case and additional on-the-ground perspective for reconsideration, leading the president to approve the declaration," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

Newsom's request came in a Sept. 28 letter to the Trump administration. He asked for major assistance to help the state rebuild communities hit by the six fires, including the Creek Fire in McClintock's district, which has destroyed more than 850 structures in Fresno and Madera counties and led to the evacuation of hundreds of trapped campers over the Labor Day weekend.

Also among the fires covered by the disaster request are the Slater Fire in Siskiyou County, which is in LaMalfa's district, and the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, in Garcia's district.

"Californians are exhausted," Newsom wrote in his request. "Many of the counties impacted by these wildfires are still recovering from previous devastating wildfires, storms, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic."

FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said Friday that the damage from the six fires in the aid application didn't meet the requirements for the federal government to officially declare a disaster. She said there were other federal programs available, such as loans from the Small Business Administration.

A disaster declaration allows FEMA to provide specialized assistance to individuals and households, as well as pick up much of the cost of state and local government response. It can also provide for federal resources to support local efforts, including experts on the ground.

Newsom's letter estimated that the cost of damage for the six fires could exceed $364 million, including efforts to repair destroyed roads and remove hazardous trees. Besides the Creek, Slater and Bobcat fires, his request covers damage from the Oak Fire in Mendocino County, the Valley Fire in San Diego County and the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County.

The governor sent his request the day after the Glass Fire ignited in Napa and Sonoma counties, and damage related to the fire is not included in his estimate. The Glass Fire, now 97% contained, has destroyed more than 1,550 structures and torched more than 67,480 acres.

Trump has sparred with California officials in recent months over the extent to which climate change has contributed to recent fires. He has threatened to withhold federal disaster aid from the state in the past because of what he labeled the state's poor management of its forestland, much of which is actually under federal control, but has never followed through.

Newsom has jabbed at Trump over numerous issues but has also said the president has consistently provided aid when California needed it. In August, the governor said he had a "strong personal relationship" with Trump and that the two worked well together in private.

At the time, Newsom noted the federal government's approval of his August aid request, for which he said he was "very grateful."

The governor also stressed his relationship with Trump when the president met with him outside Sacramento last month to discuss the wildfires. During that visit, Trump honored seven members of an Army National Guard helicopter crew that evacuated hundreds of people who had been trapped by the Creek Fire -- the blaze for which FEMA initially rejected the state's disaster-aid application.

John Gasper , an associate teaching professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, said the process for major disaster declarations is opaque. While FEMA uses financial estimates of damage, as well as hardship considerations for the community, to guide its recommendation to the president, that information is not publicly available. That makes it hard to tell if a decision is politically motivated, Gasper added.

Research that Gasper published in 2015 found that disaster aid is more free-flowing in election years, and the threshold for approval is lower in politically competitive states. But he noted that Trump has thrown out many of the typical rules of the presidency.

Richard Sylves , a retired professor of political science at the University of Delaware who has written books on disaster policy and emergency management, said Trump's reversal may be without precedent.

"I'm familiar with declarations as far back as (President Harry) Truman ," he said. "I have not heard of such a thing."

Presidents generally follow the recommendations of FEMA on disaster aid, Sylves said, and while they may hear from congressional delegations after rejecting a request, they typically leave the appeals process to FEMA.

The odds of a successful appeal are low, he added, because few disaster declarations are rejected in the first place. Those that are usually do not fit the financial criteria or may have disputed estimates of damages.

"It's unusual for presidents to short-circuit FEMA and issue a turnabout because of a plea by a legislator," Sylves said. "Usually, there has to be a basis of fact."

But he added, "This is an election season."

(c)2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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