USA — Texas politicians fumed Wednesday over the Obama administration’s denial of a major disaster declaration for the fire-ravaged state, accusing federal officials of injecting politics into their decisions.
Federal officials denied the assertion, saying they have already provided Texas with ample emergency assistance.
“It is the largest wildfire that I’ve ever been aware of in Texas,” said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, whose district is near Possum Kingdom. “I have a hard time believing this isn’t political in nature by the president, rather than based on the merits.”
The impact of the denial at Possum Kingdom Lake wasn’t clear Wednesday. All but about five of the 167 homes destroyed there were vacation homes, so Palo Pinto County would not have qualified for federal assistance for individuals, County Judge David Nicklas said.
Only primary residences are eligible, he said.
“We’re still researching whether we’re missing out on other kinds of help because they didn’t declare a disaster,” Nicklas said. “But right now it doesn’t look like we’ll take a big hit because of it.”
Gov. Rick Perry, a frequent critic of Obama and federal spending, requested the declaration April 17. More than 9,000 wildfires have burned 2.2 million acres and destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes since November, according to the state.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials defended their decision Wednesday, pointing out that in five months the agency has given Texas 25 federal fire management assistance grants, which reimburse 75 percent of the state’s firefighting expenses.
Nicklas said Palo Pinto County agencies have already qualified for such a federal grant.
Federal officials said an assessment determined that damage from the fires did not exceed what the state could handle — a standard consideration on whether to declare a federal disaster.
“FEMA has been in close contact with the state since the fires occurred, and based on the information they provided, it was determined that there was not a need for additional support at this time,” Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials.”
The state has 30 days to appeal. The Texas Forest Service and local departments report spending more than $76 million fighting the fire since Sept. 1.
Perry said, “Our state has become a model for the nation in disaster preparedness and response, but Texas is reaching its capacity to respond to these emergencies.”
Politics at work?
Perry’s criticism of Obama’s handling of the disaster request has drawn national attention. After Obama quickly declared a disaster after tornadoes ravaged Alabama and killed more than 300 people, Perry told reporters last week: “You have to ask, ‘Why are you taking care of Alabama and other states?'”
That drew derision from some people, who questioned why Obama would help a red state like Alabama if he were playing favorites. They also note that the Texas Legislature had proposed cutting from $34 million from the Texas Forest Service’s budget.
“A year ago, Perry was rejecting federal stimulus aid that would shore up Texas’ unemployment trust fund and firing up Tea Party audiences with talk of secession,” a columnist for the online magazine Salon wrote in a recent column. “But now, when disaster hits, suddenly he’s looking for federal handouts!”
In September, Perry asked for a federal disaster declaration for 13 counties after Tropical Storm Hemine killed seven people and destroyed about 200 homes. Then, too, Texas was turned down.
Arlington hoped to use federal money to buy out flood-damaged homes along Rush Creek. Mayor Robert Cluck questioned why the request was turned down.
“Is that a political thing?” Cluck said. “Could it be something between the governor and the president?”
Politics are not supposed to play a role in disaster declarations, but they may, said David A. McEntire, associate professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas. In 1995, President Bill Clinton waived the damage assessments required before declaring a disaster during flooding in California.
Some people believe that President George W. Bush gave assistance to counties in Florida that were not deserving, he said.
However, McEntire said most disasters do not result in a federal declaration. Compared with the Texas fires, the Alabama tornadoes caused greater loss, he said. “Although a lot of land was charred in Texas and many people have lost homes, I imagine the difference between the two events is significant,” he said.
The last time Texas got a federal disaster declaration for wildfires was in 2006 during George. W. Bush’s presidency, according to FEMA records.
The recovery at Possum Kingdom Lake is showing some signs of life, Nicklas said. The county judge said he visited damaged areas Wednesday and saw several construction or demolition crews working in the Gaines Bend area, where many houses burned. It is too soon to determine how many people will rebuild.
Alesia Dowling of Fort Worth lost a small lake house in the Hog’s Bend area. She said her house, like others in the area, was not insured because the area is accessible only by boat. No one will insure it, she said.
Her family is still figuring out how to get the burned material off the property and hasn’t considered the next step, she said.
“It would be great if there was some kind of program to give us some help., but we’re not really expecting any,” Dowling said. “We’ll get through it, though.”