A multiagency earthquake damage assessment taking place this weekend will determine whether Ridgecrest-area residents and businesses receive access to grants or low-interest federal loans designed to help them recover, and whether federal money will be given out to assist in rebuilding local infrastructure.
In a bottom-to-top process similar to the one that prompted President Donald Trump to declare an emergency in the area Monday, the review has to prompt a formal request by Gov. Gavin Newsom for a major presidential disaster declaration before it could be considered by the White House.
It remains far from clear whether such action is warranted. Federal and state officials said late last week they had no clear idea how likely it is that the damage caused by earthquakes in the Ridgecrest area July 4 and 5 would justify a major presidential disaster declaration.
Such a declaration would only be made if the assessment finds "hundreds if not thousands of homes totally destroyed" by the quakes, said Eric Lamoureux, deputy director for response and recovery at the California Office of Emergency Services, which is joined in the review this weekend by officials from Ridgecrest, Kern County, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A more limited response is also possible, he said, if it turns out the damage is smaller. The SBA could make resources available to homeowners, renters and business owners if at least 25 homes are ruined and more than 40 percent of them suffered uninsured losses.
The difference between the two is substantial. A presidential disaster declaration would reimburse local governments for repairs to things like roads, bridges and schools. Direct financial grants to individuals are also possible.
An SBA response, which could come without a presidential disaster declaration, would offer loans of up to $40,000 for personal-property losses, up to $200,000 for property such as houses and up to $2 million for businesses.
Lamoureux said the state would only pursue SBA assistance if FEMA denies the state's request, were it to be made, for grants to individuals.
The review by local, county, state and federal officials began Thursday and is expected to continue through the weekend.
If a major disaster is declared, it would provide far more resources than were made available by the emergency declarations made soon after the earthquakes.
On the day of the first quake, Ridgecrest and Kern County declared an emergency, followed a day later by Newson's declaration that Kern and San Bernardino counties were in a state of emergency. Trump's declaration came three days after that, which state and federal officials said is the proper order.
The idea is that higher levels of government step in as lower layers have no more resources to tap, said FEMA spokeswoman Veronica Verde.
"We follow when local and state (agencies) have exhausted their capacities," she said. "The state will come to us."
The president's emergency declaration, as distinct from a finding there has been an actual disaster, meant federal agencies were ready to offer personnel, equipment and commodities at no cost to local and state agencies.
As it turned out, Verde said, few if any federal resources were needed as part of the emergency response.
"So far there has been no need for those commodities," she said, "but they are there if there is that request."