FEMA director, Oregon senators say they’ll help every step of the way

The state’s top lawmakers and the federal government’s top emergency official pledged to work together without partisanship to rebuild Southern Oregon as quickly as possible after the destructive Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

They acknowledged, however, that the rebuild won’t necessarily be swift.

FEMA director Pete Gaynor said Saturday at the Jackson County Expo news conference that his agency will work “in lockstep” with state and local officials for the immediate federal aid they need for the emergency cleanup, as well as years down the line to rebuild housing in Jackson County.

He asked local residents for patience because aid “can never come soon enough” and he expects a multi-year recovery process.

“We have to work together,” Gaynor said.

Gaynor toured the destruction in Phoenix and Talent, joined by a bipartisan delegation of Oregon senators and congressmen — Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio — who promised to use “every legislative vehicle” in Washington to help get impacted communities back to where they were before the fires.

Wyden said that the rebuild is akin to a “basketball game.”

“This is like the first quarter,” Wyden said. “We’re going to be here for the second quarter, and the third quarter and the fourth quarter, and if it takes, going into overtime to get the communities the help they need.”

Wyden and Merkley each touched on ways they hope to work with FEMA to work some projects through the system of arcane “alphabet soup” names, and to make other programs easier for regular people impacted by the fires to understand.

For instance, Wyden mentioned a Mail Tribune report on how the Almeda fire could flush toxins into Bear Creek as an example of how FEMA’s “Category A” assistance can help Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management and Jackson County with cleaning up hazardous debris.

“That has real implications for the Rogue,” Wyden said. “It has real implications for water and for business and for rebuilding.”

Oregon Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said his department is working with FEMA and Jackson County on getting “right of entry” to bring in EPA contractors later this month who’ll clean up the debris at no cost to fire victims, adding it’ll happen “relatively soon.”

Sen. Merkley called it a “great moment” that FEMA’s national administrator could be in Southern Oregon, but says he’s partnering with the delegation to improve the agency’s “urgency and creativity.”

“I just keep stressing the need for speed,” Merkley said in a phone interview after the news conference. “I don’t think FEMA has wrestled with anything outside their standard formula.”

Merkley touched on the need for “out of the box” solutions to the county’s acute housing shortage, such as bringing in trailers to the Jackson County Expo or on acreage close to the displaced victims’ homes, instead of letting people disperse “into the winds.”

“It would be very helpful if they could get people to move back to their local area now,” Merkley said. “People aren’t going to sit around for years, and then pick up their place in the community.”

Rep. Walden also touched on the “literally thousands” of homes gone, when the area already struggled with 1% occupancy rates before the fire and only built a few hundred new homes in 2018.

“That’s a long time coming back,” Walden said, advocating for maintaining pressure on FEMA and using “every resource we can find to get people into a place where they can call home again.”

Walden said there’s “unprecedented support and speed from the federal government,” and FEMA is fully funded.

“The president signed off on the major disaster declaration within 24 hours,” Walden said. “He’s personally been engaged with this, the Chief of Staff has been engaged in this, you’ve got the top of FEMA here.”

Walden said FEMA leadership’s presence in Oregon — Gaynor is touring fire impacted areas around Oregon through Sunday — “sends a real signal for those who’ve lost so much.”

Rep. DeFazio said that even though he’s “ideological opposites” from the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, together they helped facilitate a disaster declaration from President Donald Trump in “record time.”

“We can work across the aisle on things like this,” DeFazio said. “Disasters don’t choose between Democrats, Republicans, Independents or anybody else. They hit everybody.”