In a letter sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today, Oregon senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) join Rep. Greg Walden (R- Ore.) in pushing the agency for more transparency when it comes to granting federal disaster declarations.
In January, Gov. Kate Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler declared Oregon and Portland to be in a state of emergency, in the midst of snowstorms which left schools closed, thousands without power and major roads and highways closed. Portland increased its fleet of snow plows by 20 percent, borrowing 11 plows from Seattle. Multnomah County shelters were 45 percent over capacity, at least four people living on the streets of Portland died, and the storm even caused buildings to collapse in Eastern Oregon.
It was the most snow Portland had seen in nearly four decades.
Brown requested a federal disaster declarations for ten Oregon counties, including Multnomah County, on March 9. Merkely, Wyden and Walden also wrote to FEMA in support of Brown's request.
Last week, FEMA rejected Brown's request for a federal disaster declaration, meaning that Oregon lawmakers and residents weren't able to seek federal aid to recover from the more than $17 million in damages from January's severe winter weather, which, according to the letter, come from damaged power lines, landslides, mudslides, agricultural losses, an increased need for emergency services, as well an enormous economic blow.
In the letter, the senators urge FEMA acting administrator Robert Fenton for more transparency, as the amount of incurred damages was "well above the threshold for a Presidential Disaster Declaration for the state of Oregon as well as the ten individual counties."
The letter also says that it has come to the attention of the lawmakers that FEMA may have denied the request because they considered the events to be separate storms, which according to the letter, "runs contrary to the National Weather Service's (NWS) support for Oregon's position that the storm was one incident."
In 2015, Oregon received a Presidential Disaster Declaration after twelve counties were affected by severe winter storms, flooding, mudslides and landslides, which occurred between December 6 and 23.
"The discrepancies between the 2015 incident and this disaster request, along with FEMA's lack of transparency through the 2017 process, are cause for concern," the letter states.
Another reason Oregon may have been denied the request is because of a coming clarification to FEMA's Severe Winter Storm and Snowstorm Policy. The letter states FEMA Headquarters did not inform FEMA Region X, which supports Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Oregon, of the change.
Now, the senators are demanding answers to five key questions concerning the process of the denial:
Is it true that FEMA evaluated Oregon’s request as separate and distinct weather events?”
What steps did FEMA take to ensure that Oregon was provided with technical assistance and the most up-to-date guidelines before submitting their request?
Was Oregon’s application reviewed using guidelines in place at the time of the submittal, or did the review use the guidelines written after the fact in April 2017?
“What type of technical assistance and guidance is FEMA providing to states like Oregon in their appeal process so that county managers and other understand the guidelines and are able to focus on elements that support a successful appeal?
What is FEMA’s current policy on alerting states of the rationale for an award or denial for disaster declarations, and what will FEMA do in the future to insure this process is transparent and objective?”