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COLUMN: Disaster Assistance Requirements Should Treat Rural Communities Fairly

December 14, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

Taking steps to improve forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires from occurring is critical, and I have supported passage of legislation in the U.S. House like the Resilient Forests Act this year to make those improvements. For communities across the nation that have faced the recurring threat of natural disasters, it is also important to ensure that residents of small towns and rural areas are treated fairly when calculating federal disaster relief.

For the past two historic fire seasons, residents of Central Washington have been denied Individual Assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because current eligibility rules do not adequately work for small and rural communities nationwide. After this summer’s historic catastrophic forest fires burned more than one million acres and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, FEMA granted a federal emergency disaster declaration for Washington. FEMA also approved Washington’s request for Public Assistance to support emergency work and repair of damaged public facilities. While Washington communities facing extreme economic hardship were grateful for that support, the request for Individual Assistance on behalf of hard-hit homeowners and businesses was denied. Individual Assistance provides families and individuals housing support, disaster crisis counseling, and disaster unemployment benefits. Individual Assistance support can make a huge difference for a family’s ability to cope with the effects of a natural catastrophe.

Under FEMA’s current rules, rural communities start at a disadvantage when eligibility for Individual Assistance is calculated. Currently, metropolitan statistical areas characterized by dense housing and concentrated damage are prioritized to receive federal aid. Most wildfire damage, however, is widespread and affects residents over a large geographical area. Despite the fact that the economic impact of wildfires for these rural regions may be severe, too many rural residents are excluded from the chance to receive federal aid under these concentration guidelines. I have met with FEMA officials in person and urged the agency to update criteria used to determine federal disaster aid: the fact is, for many rural areas in the nation, it is virtually impossible to qualify for Individual Assistance despite confronting life altering disasters. While federal aid is never a guarantee, rural residents certainly should not face unfair obstacles to the possibility of assistance – whether you live in a rural community or an urban community, you should be allowed equal access to the program.

Last week, I joined my colleagues, Rep. Derek Kilmer and Rep. Dave Reichert, to introduce the Individual Assistance Improvement Act of 2015 to revise eligibility criteria and provide clarity and objective standards for the formula used to grant Individual Assistance. For rural areas, this bill would remove the current housing density requirement from the necessary criteria. The legislation would also require FEMA to explain the rationale and methodology it used for accepting or rejecting major disaster requests. Localities deserve to know how FEMA makes decisions in such a critical time.

Homeowners must take responsible steps to insure private property, but the federal government also has a duty to treat rural residents facing disaster with fairness. Congress must continue to act to reduce the risk of catastrophic wild fires, but we can also make reforms so that no family facing the aftermath of a wildfire is denied federal aid simply because they live in a rural community.