There’s so much wrong with FEMA’s recent denial of aid to Erskine Fire survivors, it’s almost painful.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the Federal Emergency Management Agency skunked California’s plea for help, but I think it comes down to insurance.
While most of the folks who lost homes in the fire tended to be low-income, elderly, disabled or all of the above, apparently a lot of them were insured.
The Erskine Fire destroyed about 290 homes, according to state figures.
Owners of more than 200 of those homes have already filed claims for total loss. And about 300 property claims for things like boats, cars, etc., have also been filed, according to California Office of Emergency Services (OES) spokesman Brad Alexander.
That’s great, it’s a lot more coverage than I had feared folks up there would have.
And hopefully, they will get enough to rebuild or relocate.
Course, they still need somewhere to live in the meantime.
And what about the families who lived in the other nearly 100 homes who haven’t filed insurance claims?
“Some people are living in campsites,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who has been working behind the scenes to see if the denial can be reversed. “This fire devastated an entire community.”
McCarthy has been frustrated by what he feels is a de facto reliance by FEMA on only a few criteria it can consider, such as number of homes destroyed.
It has to be more than 801.
“But there are other indicators they’re supposed to be using,” McCarthy said. “Such as concentration of damage, trauma to the community and special populations.”
If those other criteria — especially trauma and special populations — hold any real weight, that should have tipped the scales in favor of FEMA approving aid, McCarthy argued and I agree.
“What we really need FEMA for is individual assistance and temporary housing,” McCarthy said. “We’re calling around and other government agencies don’t provide that kind of help.”
In its denial letter, FEMA said California, the county and volunteer groups have the resources to handle the recovery needs of Erskine Fire victims.
“The question is, what are those resources and when are they coming?” said Leigh Ann Cook, chief of staff for Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, who represents the Kern River Valley.
Other than help with cleaning up the massive amounts of debris left by the fire — which is a huge help — Cook said she didn’t know what state resources could be accessed by victims.
I asked FEMA external affairs officer Kelly Hudson what state resources FEMA had counted as being enough to handle this recovery and she didn’t really have an answer.
Wait a second.
If FEMA is denying aid, in part, because it believes the state has adequate resources, it should have a list of those resources, programs and/or agencies, right?
Hudson sent me back to Alexander with the state OES because “that was information in the state’s package (application for aid). It’s not our information to release.” (Okaaaaay, aren’t you both public agencies? Hmmm.)
“FEMA would be the best to respond as to what they mean by state resources,” Alexander told me.
Oh my head.
Finally, I asked for everything the state sent to FEMA — the whole package — to see if I could figure it out myself.
In the letter and documents sent by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, it lists state agencies and resources that had already been thrown at the Erskine Fire and its immediate aftermath. There’s no list of resources the state has in reserve to help with recovery.
Then he clearly states: “...this incident is of such severity and magnitude an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments and that supplemental federal assistance is necessary.”
“It’s disappointing, genuinely disappointing,” said Georgianna Armstrong, Kern’s emergency services manager. “The people up there need help.”
Recovery from disasters usually goes in phases, she explained.
We’ve been through the immediate aftermath phase. Now, Armstrong is working with a number of agencies and volunteer organizations to plot a long-term path.
“We’re in the uncomfortable phase of what do people do when the immediate help runs out,” she said.
That’s where FEMA would have come in.
McCarthy and others are still hoping to appeal FEMA’s denial. But that will require new information, which Cook, in Gleason’s office, is working hard to get.
By the way, one of the other criteria considered by FEMA is whether an area is served by a large number of volunteer organizations.
In the Kern River Valley, the list of volunteer groups helping Erskine Fire Victims is impressive. I know because FEMA sent it to me.
Look, I don’t think FEMA should open up the taxpayer checkbook at the slightest breeze.
I appreciate it has a checklist.
But if the fact that some people had insurance and volunteers are pitching in to help penalizes an entire community, as I said earlier, that’s just wrong.