Great editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the denial of FEMA funds for the Texas Wildfires.
Texas’ argument about a federal disaster declaration doesn’t help wildfire victims
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‘ & –> The political firestorm over the Obama administration’s decision not to declare Texas a disaster area has spread almost as fast as the wildfires that ignited it.
Gov. Rick Perry, who in April requested a federal disaster declaration to cover 252 of the state’s 254 counties, has been joined by the state’s two U.S. senators and other politicians in expressing outrage over the denial, suggesting the decision has more to do with politics than sound judgment.
The governor notes that in the past six months there were more than 9,000 Texas wildfires that scorched more than 2.2 million acres and destroyed more than 400 homes. He also points out that the president was quick to declare portions of Alabama a disaster after ravaging tornadoes — the worst outbreak since the 1930s — ripped through the South last month.
The fire destruction in several Texas counties was devastating by any measure. That does not necessarily make virtually the entire state eligible for a federal disaster declaration. Palo Pinto County, one of the hardest hit in recent weeks, would not qualify for federal disaster aid, County Judge Davie Nicklas said, because the vast majority of the homes destroyed were vacation houses rather than primary residences. “We’re still researching whether we’re missing out on other kinds of help because they didn’t declare a disaster,” Nicklas told the Star-Telegram. “But right now it doesn’t look like we’ll take a big hit because of it.”
Although an argument can be made for specific counties to be designated disaster areas, it is not constructive for state officials to engage in yet another public spat with Washington.
It also is not productive, civil or appropriate to compare the situation in Texas with the tornado tragedies in Alabama and five other states that claimed at least 340 lives and destroyed more than 10,000 homes and businesses. The case for the Lone Star State should be made on its own merits.
In Perry’s letter to the president, dated April 16, the governor asked that the entire state — minus San Patricio County along the gulf in South Texas and Wood County in East Texas — be declared a major disaster “as a result of wildland fires … beginning December 21, 2010, and continuing.”
One can concede how federal authorities could find the request overly broad, even exaggerated.
It’s important for indignant state officials to acknowledge that Texas received every federal fire management assistance grant it requested between the end of February and now. The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 25 grants that will reimburse 75 percent of the state’s firefighting expenses. FEMA said it is prepared to assist in Texas should other fires break out, but that Texas is capable of responding to the needs of those affected by the blazes thus far.
Perry and state lawmakers must recognize the disconnect between demanding more federal assistance for wildfires while at the same time passing bills in the Texas House and Senate that cut $34.2 million from the Texas Forest Service’s wildfire program. That’s a 40 percent reduction. Asking the feds to do more while the state does less is a questionable tactic for success.
Rather than continue the public standoff with the administration, Texas officials should conduct an accurate assessment of needs in each affected county to determine if there are large numbers of families and specific circumstances that meet the criteria for federal assistance. If the findings merit the declaration, then submit another request.
People aren’t helped by political posturing regardless of who’s doing it.