Politics & Government

Is California too rich to get help from FEMA? New guidelines worry emergency planners

If California experiences another deadly disaster like the 2018 Camp Fire, survivors may have a far more difficult time obtaining federal assistance.

That’s the warning California’s Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci issued at a congressional field hearing Tuesday.

The reason: a new Federal Emergency Management Agency regulation tightening eligibility for federal disaster recovery programs including housing assistance, healthcare, crisis counseling and unemployment assistance.

The regulation, finalized in March, established additional criteria — what the agency calls “declaration factors” — to calculate whether future disaster survivors can apply for federal help.

Among other things, the new formula will take into account a state’s fiscal capacity, total taxable resources, gross domestic product, nonprofit capacity, and the per capita income of the local area. The changes went into effect on June 1.

California’s gross domestic product of $2.7 trillion makes it the fifth largest economy in the world, according to federal data. The state this year expects to collect a $21 billion surplus, and it’s building up reserves of $19 billion.

Speaking at a House Oversight Committee hearing on California’s wildfire risk in Simi Valley, Ghilarducci testified that under FEMA’s new guidelines, “States, such as California, with large and extremely diverse populations will essentially be penalized as there will be an assumption the state has the fiscal capacity to handle the impacts of the events with its own resources.”

That echoes comments the state submitted in October 2016, after the regulation was first proposed, that factors like taxable and per capita income “greatly reflect the success of a few lucrative industries in California, and do not directly represent the financial capacity of the state.”

Ghilarducci said Tuesday that California state officials are still analyzing the impact of the final rule, but “we believe these changes would now require the state to demonstrate at least twice as much eligible damage before (individual assistance) support would be granted.”

Survivors of last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County, as well as of the 2018 Carr Fire and the 2017 fires in California’s wine country, would likely not have been eligible for federal assistance under the new criteria, according to Office of Emergency Services (OES) calculations.

A FEMA spokesperson, however, disputed that. In a statement FEMA said that when it comes to the five most recent requests for individual assistance, “the decision to approve or deny would most likely be the same as under the rules in effect at the time.”

State records show more than 27,000 Californians have been deemed eligible for federal assistance as a result of the 2018 fires and other disasters, including 7,000 who were granted housing assistance and another 700 provided mobile housing units or trailers. The changes to the disaster assistance criteria would not affect victims of those or other previous disasters.

In a statement to McClatchy, FEMA said the regulatory changes are part of an effort to meet requirements in a 2013 law aimed at improving FEMA’s disaster recovery programs for individuals. “The intent of the final rule is to provide more objective criteria, clarify the threshold for eligibility and speed the declaration process,” the statement said.

The initial draft rule, requiring a state’s finances to be taken into account, was proposed during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

The proposal was vociferously opposed, not just by California, but also emergency management officials in Washington, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Florida and Connecticut, among others.

In written comments submitted to FEMA in October 2016, Alysha Kaplan of the Washington State Emergency Management Division argued the proposed regulation would be “punitive towards states that had a vibrant economic picture pre-disaster.”

Kaplan wrote that factoring in taxable private income without also including states’ revenue commitments and obligations “is a completely one-sided assessment of state capacity geared towards limiting disaster assistance. “

Ghilarducci made a similar argument in his written statement submitted to Congress on Tuesday. Likewise, he pointed out that nonprofit organizations may not be able to help because they are “often funded by monetary donations and other inconsistent sources.”

State officials worry that the California residents most likely to be affected by the new criteria are those in rural communities, like the town of Paradise that was destroyed by the Camp Fire, who tend to need the federal assistance most.

Despite those concerns, Ghilarducci said Tuesday that state and federal officials are working well together on disaster prevention and relief. The heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and the state’s leaders on wildfire prevention has been just that, he told Democratic Rep. Katie Hill of Santa Clarita.

“We have not been limited in our disaster recovery funds, the president has declared each of the disasters we have requested,” he testified. And, after a spat over reimbursement rates was resolved in July, “Our fire management assistance grants are approved now in record time.”

But Ghilarducci also acknowledged that, “we do know the federal government is looking at reducing the cost of disasters.”

“Right now, so far, it’s been okay for us,” he said.

This story was updated to include a response from FEMA on whether victims of recent California disasters would still have received assistance under the new criteria released in March.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.