Wyden, Merkley, Walden question FEMA denial

Oregon’s Senators and a Congressman have questioned a decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deny a request for a presidential disaster declaration for the January snowstorms that brought parts of the state to a crawl.

FEMA denied the March 9 request from Gov. Kate Brown, D-Oregon, for a disaster declaration in 10 counties, including Deschutes, that would have brought state and federal dollars to compensate local governments for their storm cleanup and repair costs. Snow removal from roads and the roofs of public buildings and other costs in Deschutes County amounted to about $2.7 million out of $17.6 million the state requested.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, wrote FEMA Friday with “great concern” and asked for further information about the decision. Oregon plans to appeal the denial, said Andrew Jacobs, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

“We have 30 days to restate our case,” Jacobs said Monday.

The original request was prepared with the help of FEMA staff in Oregon, Jacobs said, and with information supplied by the National Weather Service. The snow storms Jan. 7-20 “had devastating effects on Oregon’s economy, and hit rural economies especially hard,” according to the letter from Wyden, Merkley and Walden to Robert Fenton, FEMA acting administrator.

In Deschutes County some roads and streets went unplowed for days, schools closed and roofs collapsed on several buildings, including the gym at Highland Magnet at Kenwood School on Newport Avenue in Bend on Jan. 12. Only public agencies and some nonprofits would benefit from a presidential disaster declaration, Jacobs said. Bend-La Pine Schools, for example, could be eligible to recoup a portion of the deductible it paid on an insurance claim for the collapsed roof, he said. Calls to the school district and the county were not returned.

Jacobs said FEMA denied the Oregon request, in part, because it did not consider the winter storms one event, as the National Weather Service first defined them, but rather separate and distinct weather patterns. In April, a month after the state request, FEMA issued guidance on its Winter Storm and Snowstorm Policy for the region that includes Oregon that may have affected its request, he said.

The fact that two federal agencies, FEMA and the National Weather Service, helped Oregon officials prepare a disaster request that FEMA later denied is counterintuitive, Jacobs said.

Not all requests for a disaster declaration are approved, he said. Between 1997 and 2012, about 20 percent of all requests were denied. Oregon previously requested a disaster declaration Jan. 12 for storms that occurred in mid-December and left $16.3 million in damages and hazard mitigation, according to FEMA. President Donald Trump approved that request Jan. 25.