Monday, September 25, 2023

Huffman, Citing Rio Dell, Asks FEMA for more ‘Flexible, Equitable’ Access to Disaster Aid

Posted By on Mon, Sep 25, 2023 at 10:13 AM

North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman questioned the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency about inadequacies built into the disaster relief program Sept. 19, specifically citing the recovery struggles in Rio Dell as an example of how the system is failing smaller, rural communities in the wake of natural disasters.

While thanking FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell for the important work the agency does across the nation as she testified before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Huffman asked for the agency “to provide more flexible, equitable ways for devastated communities to qualify for federal disaster relief from FEMA.”

Huffman emphasized that residents in less affluent communities are often left to fend for themselves, unable to meet the damage thresholds that trigger federal aid, while more urban, wealthy areas are able to meet the total required with just a fraction of the damage and far less impact.

“We leave a lot of rural, less affluent communities behind. And with the climate crisis bringing us more and bigger disasters, we really need to tackle this equity problem now to get ahead of it,” he said. “So, I told you a little about my district. We've got earthquakes, we've got tsunamis, we've got wildfires. It is sort of the poster child for this problem because FEMA's arbitrary and inflexible financial damage threshold can leave devastated communities behind.”

He pointed to the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that hit Rio Dell particularly hard on Dec. 22, damaging 25 percent of the small city’s housing stock and causing nearly $26 million in damage to the city's vital infrastructure, but still fell far short of meeting FEMA’s $65 million threshold for releasing aid.

Huffman also noted the 2017 Helena Fire in Trinity County, which took out 15 percent of the county’s housing but still didn’t qualify because the property values were not high enough.

“You know, if you … took the same disaster and it happened in an affluent place, Pebble Beach, any number of other places maybe took out a small fraction of the homes, you'd have no problem triggering federal disaster relief,” he said.”But these communities were left without that support.”

Conversely, Huffman noted Crescent City was only able to qualify for FEMA aid in 2011 after the massive Tōhoku earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami that destroyed the harbor there because of damage also caused at a harbor in Santa Cruz with “fancy yachts” that pushed the damage totals over the threshold.

“So, Administrator Criswell, it seems to me that this is fundamentally unfair and again, with more disasters coming, we really need to provide more flexible, equitable ways for devastated communities to qualify for federal disaster relief from FEMA,” Huffman said, noting his staff would also be presenting her with a formal letter on the matter.

“I believe you have existing authority that would let you do a rulemaking to provide that flexibility and equity. But if you need new authority, additional authority,” he said. I hope you will please let us know and we will get to work to make it happen.”

Criswell responded that Huffman made several good points and that one of her priorities at FEMA has been“equitably delivering our programs,” adding that the agency looks at a “number of factors,” including the state and local government’s ability to provide support as well as “the amount of insurance and the amount of damage.”

“I mean, it can be very complex and that is why we are continuing to work on ways that we can improve the way we're delivering our programs, but also better understand the barriers that communities, just as you mentioned, are experiencing to being able to get the assistance that they need in order to properly recover from these disasters,” she said. "And so, you have my commitment to continue to find ways that we can improve the way we're delivering our programs and ensuring that everybody who is eligible for our programs has access to that assistance. “

Huffman also sent a formal letter to FEMA requesting the agency work with legislators “on developing and updating criteria to allow disaster assistance to be applied more equitably and with sufficient flexibility so that less affluent and rural communities can access the relief and support they need and deserve.

“ I look forward to working with you on this important issue,” he wrote.

Editor's Note: This story first ran in the Sept. 21 edition of The Enterprise.
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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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