Washington, USA — President Bush declared a major disaster today inCalifornia, which allows people affected by the fires to begin to receivefederal grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to coveruninsured property losses.
Bush met this morning at the White House with his Cabinet and afterward toldreporters: “I believe the effort is well coordinated. I know we’re gettingthe manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state andlocal authorities.”
Speaking in the Cabinet Room, the president said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toldhim that the state was receiving the federal help it needed. “I assured himthat if he needs anything, then, great, we’ll provide it, we’ll do so,” hesaid.
Saying they have learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, White House officialshave tried to quickly respond to the wildfire emergency in Southern Californiathrough a rapid deployment of federal support and a presidential visit.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and R. David Paulison, director ofthe Federal Emergency Management Agency, arrived in the state Tuesday. Bushcanceled an appearance at a fundraiser in St. Louis to fly to California onThursday. The White House has not yet announced his schedule for the trip.
Bush expressed regret that he could do nothing to control the winds, which havefanned the fires. “I want the people in Southern California to know thatAmericans all across this land care deeply about them,” he said. “We’reconcerned about their safety, we’re concerned about their property, and we offerour prayers and hopes that all will turn out fine in the end.”
The fires have stoked calls in Washington to do more to prevent suchconflagrations.
On Tuesday, the Senate’s leading Democrat — Harry Reid of Nevada — said theadministration has for years shortchanged funding for prevention efforts toremove the dead trees and shrubbery that provide the fuel for the fast movingblazes.
Meanwhile, one of the California delegation’s most influential members — Rep.Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) — urged Congress to quickly provide $1 billion inemergency funding to help pay for firefighting and disaster relief.
The developments in the nation’s capital came even before the political andbudgetary fallout from the disaster could be calculated.
“There were lessons learned out of Katrina, and I think we are applyingsome of those, especially when it comes to early communication between our staffhere at the federal level and then the governor’s staff,” White House PressSecretary Dana Perino said Tuesday.
The 2005 hurricane devastated New Orleans, and the disjointed federal responsewas widely criticized. Now, federal agencies ranging from the Defense Departmentto the U.S. Forest Service have quickly mobilized. FEMA has been working inclose coordination with state officials throughout the emergency. The militaryis making available aerial tankers and other heavy-duty firefighting gear, alongwith crews.
But Reid suggested that the administration failed to heed the lessons of the2003 wildfires that destroyed some of the same areas of San Diego County thatare burning again.
After those fires, Congress authorized up to $760 million a year for “fuelreduction” efforts to clear away dead trees and other combustible material.But only about two-thirds of that — about $500 million — has been providedthrough the annual budgetary negotiations between the White House and Congress,congressional aides said.
“We have fought for years during this Bush administration to have money forwildfire suppression,” Reid said. “It takes effort to prepare thelandscape so that these fires don’t burn the way they have been….That’s whatwildfire suppression legislation and [federal] money is all about.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), who chairs a key funding subcommittee, said,”There is no question that fuel reduction has been under-funded. … Invirtually every session, we’ve had to fight for additional money … and I’mprepared to fight again.”
Feinstein also told the Senate that the disaster will be a critical test forFEMA. The biggest challenge could well come after the fires are put out, whenthe agency will steer residents and business owners to federal programs that canhelp them rebuild.
While Lewis did not criticize the administration, he agreed that the governmentneeds to put a higher priority on prevention. “When we have disasters ofthis size, the dollars seem to flow on call, but it is more difficult gettingcontinuing dollars to manage the forests long-term,” Lewis said in a floorspeech. “We need to continue to address those long-term needs and not allowthe current crisis to reduce that effort.”
The federal funds for clearing away dead trees are meant to be spent on federalproperty, and most of the fires this time are on private and state lands.Nonetheless, Congress may decide in the future to provide some support for stateand local efforts.
The president’s declaration of a major disaster makes federal funding availableto people in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, SanDiego, Santa Barbara and Ventura. Money will also be available to the state,local governments and private nonprofit organizations for debris removal andemergency protective measures.
Separately, Pentagon officials said they are trying to anticipate the needs ofCalifornia and provide doctors, helicopters, firefighting equipment — even aMarine battalion.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, said Tuesday thatthe war in Iraq has not diminished the Guard’s ability to assist fire-fighters.
Although the California guard currently has 3,000 soldiers deployed overseas,”We were very, very careful to not take capabilities away from the state ofCalifornia that might be useful in fighting forest fires,” Blum said.
About 1,500 California National Guard members have been activated to assist withthe fires, and another 17,000 are available, if needed, officials said.