Wyden, Merkley seek federal help for Hood River Co.

U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are seeking federal money to help the Ports of Hood River and Cascade Locks, which suffered a combined $228,000 in lost bridge toll revenue during the Eagle Creek wildfire.

The Oregon Democrat senators sent a letter Monday to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue arguing the ports serve a vital economic role in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

“The lost toll revenue for these communities means that many important economic development initiatives will go unmet,” Wyden and Merkley said in their Nov. 13 letter.

The fire — which broke out just west of Cascade Locks Sept. 2 and swelled to 48,000 acres — forced an extended closure of Interstate 84, and the Bridge of the Gods, owned by the Cascade Locks port.

Traffic was diverted onto Washington SR-14 and across the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge, owned by the Hood River port. The detour forced a heavy traffic squeeze that included first responders and public safety vehicles.

The port waived tolls during a period of heavy smoke lingering in Hood River in early September, and resumed tolling Sept. 13.

Overall during the fire, the Port of Cascade Locks lost $158,000 worth of toll revenue. The Port of Hood River lost $70,000.

“Given that both port authorities function as economic development engines for the respective rural communities,” the senators wrote, “we urge you to give careful consideration to the Port of Cascade Locks and the Port of Hood River to help them recover these wildfire-related economic losses.”

The senators noted the ports directly contributed to the firefighting endeavor by either lifting tolls to ease traffic flow of emergency vehicles, or closing facilities to enhance public safety by limiting conflicts between the public and emergency crews.

Though the letter doesn’t identify a specific mechanism for federal money to reach the ports, it mentions USDA grants would be “hugely beneficial” to Gorge communities suffering from fire impacts.

Wyden and Merkley’s letter was sent to Perdue’s Washington, D.C., office.

County business recovery

Heavy smoke and highway closures amid the Eagle Creek fire set back businesses throughout the Columbia Gorge, but some avenues of economic recovery have opened.

A federal Small Business Administration loan program is in effect for business and nonprofit organizations that lost revenue during the blaze.

At the request of Hood River County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Management, Wasco County Emergency Management, Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and other supporters, Gov. Kate Brown wrote a letter to SBA seeking activation of the economic injury loan program.

The request was approved. SBA is accepting loan applications through July 2018.

“Wasco County also submitted several worksheets and all of our adjacent counties also benefit from access to this disaster loan program if they now choose to apply,” Hood River County Emergency Manager Barb Ayers explained in an early November email.

Applicants can apply online, receive additional disaster assistance information and download applications at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.