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Newhouse, Kilmer, and Reichert Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Expand Disaster Assistance to Rural Communities

December 11, 2015
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Representatives Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), and Dave Reichert (R-WA) introduced a bipartisan bill to expand key disaster assistance to rural communities in Washington state and across the country. The Individual Assistance Improvement Act of 2015 would increase opportunities to access the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individual Assistance Program.

The Individual Assistance Program provides housing and unemployment assistance, counseling, and other personal support to families and individuals in the wake of a disaster. However, the current formula FEMA uses to evaluate damages and send disaster declaration recommendations to the President frequently leaves smaller towns and communities out. The assistance cannot be utilized without a federal disaster declaration.

In Washington state, rural communities have been impacted by wildfires this year that burned more than one million acres and left 46 families without temporary housing. On the Olympic Peninsula severe storms have triggered flooding and mudslides that have caused significant damage to residential property. 

Two years of historic catastrophic wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes and burned 1.4 million acres, despite this the residents of Central Washington have repeatedly been denied access to Individual Assistance aid without an adequate explanation,” said Representative Newhouse. “Current rules for disaster aid prioritize relief efforts to areas of concentration, or urban areas. This means even after a major federal disaster is declared all too often residents in devastated rural communities are left to fend for themselves. No family facing the aftermath of a wildfire, or any natural disaster, should be denied federal aid simply because they live in a rural community. This legislation will revise eligibility criteria, providing much-needed clarity and objective standards for the formula used for federal assistance. I thank my colleagues, Rep. Kilmer and Rep. Reichert, for their efforts on this critical legislation to ensure rural communities are not unfairly excluded from federal aid.”

“From wildfires to mudslides, natural disasters cause significant damage to residents and businesses across our state,” said Representative Kilmer. “Folks who have to pick up the pieces after their property is damaged need a helping hand. They shouldn’t have to worry about bureaucratic and technical hurdles to getting back on their feet. This bipartisan bill ensures that rural communities in Washington state don’t get left out when we need to rebuild after disasters strike.”    

“Wildfires affect both urban and rural areas the same, they consume whatever stands in their path,” said Representative Reichert. “Communities throughout my region learned this the hard way this past summer. Chelan County alone lost 122,845 acres to wildfires, costing it over $4.7 million in damages. Many other smaller communities in Washington State and the country are impacted by wildfires and other disasters every year but do not receive the same FEMA consideration for Individual Assistance as more urban communities do. I was pleased to work with Congressmen Kilmer and Newhouse on bipartisan legislation to update this shortcoming in existing law and ensure that rural communities receive the financial support they need in order to help them pick up the pieces and rebuild after devastating disasters.” 

The members’ legislation would eliminate a factor FEMA uses to evaluate rural areas that treats them as a metropolitan area – putting too much emphasis on population density. The bill would also seek to set clear guidelines for how FEMA helps small states and rural communities gain access to assistance and would give Governors and Tribal Executives clear guidance as to why requests are accepted or rejected.