The Federal Emergency Management Agency may not be up to the task of helping fire victims, but their neighbors are.
In fact, local and state capacity to assist those who have lost everything may be one factor in the FEMA’s decision to, at least for the time being, reject Gov. Jay Inslee’s application for aid to individuals. Inslee plans to appeal.
In Okanogan County alone, the state estimates homeowner losses total about $28 million – so far. Investigators had not inspected all structures when the application was filed.
Also, although the Carlton Complex fire was nearly 100 percent contained Wednesday, the danger remains high as new waves of lightning pepper the landscape. More losses might have the perverse effect of improving the odds for a successful appeal. Fewer than one-half the homeowners were fully insured. Officials are trying to find out how much protection other owners have.
Not that it is any consolation, but Okanogan and Chelan County residents are not the only disaster victims not to get help. Colorado homeowners who lost their homes to fire last year did not get FEMA aid. Nor did Iowans whose homes were destroyed by tornadoes or flooding earlier this summer.
Superstorm Sandy victims got or will get help because the scope of that 2012 disaster overwhelmed local and state government capacity to repair public infrastructure and answer individual calls for help. FEMA is committed to spending $8 billion for public works and $2 billion for individual aid.
Despite the size of the Carlton Complex, damage to roads, utilities and other infrastructure is about $35 million, of which FEMA may pay 75 percent. That part of the governor’s application was accepted.
Fortunately, FEMA is not the only source of assistance; the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development have programs that kick in during catastrophes. Nonprofits help, too, starting with quick responders like the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
But as those organizations step back, others with a long-term focus must step up, and so it is with a new initiative undertaken with the help of the Community Foundation of North Central Washington.
The foundation usually focuses on small, education-oriented grants that total about $200,000 annually. But with the need in that region so obvious, its leaders decided to dedicate $100,000 of its own money to support disaster case managers who will be organized and trained by the Okanogan Community Action Council.
The commitment is a stretch, foundation Executive Director Beth Stipe says, but somebody needed to provide the “unsexy” money that allows other nonprofits to focus all their resources on helping clients for the next year or two. The foundation also has a separate $234,720 relief fund the case managers will dispense directly to clients according to need.
The managers will also be the one-stop shop that can connect clients with federal and state resources.
The justice of FEMA relief decisions may be questionable, but in the worst of times for communities like Pateros, neighbors are doing the right thing.