Did the federal government drag its feet in providing disaster relief to the victims of the devastating Bastrop County fires? It depends on whom you ask. State officials say they began petitioning for assistance early last week. Federal officials say the state did not request specific assistance for those who lost their homes in Bastrop until Friday — and then it was promptly granted.
The dustup is the latest in a dispute between Texas officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, and the Obama administration that began in April when Perry submitted a broad request that 252 of Texas' 254 counties be given a Major Disaster Declaration because of large wildfires burning throughout the state. The federal government denied that request, which Perry appealed; in July, the federal government granted the request for 45 counties.
Nearly 1,400 homes were lost in the Bastrop blaze that began Sept. 4, making it by far the most destructive fire in Texas history. Officials today said that 22 people were unaccounted for, in addition to two who died.
At a press conference in fire-weary Bastrop Sunday, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said that there had been "a little misinformation" about the timing of Texas' request to the federal government for emergency relief.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Doggett said, had received an emergency request early Friday afternoon — and President Obama approved the request the same evening. FEMA, reached Sunday, confirmed that the request for aid to individual Bastrop fire victims was both received and granted on Friday.
"Thanks to generous donations to the Texas Disaster Relief Fund, we can provide some basic necessities to Texans whose homes have been destroyed due to these merciless fires in the absence of federal aid," Perry's statement read. "We continue to be hopeful that President Obama will approve the state's request for an extension of our Major Disaster Declaration, and provide housing and other assistance to help those who have lost so much so quickly in these devastating fires."
Texas politicians "seem to have been complaining that they weren't getting a response before they filed the formal application," Doggett, reached by phone in Bastrop, said after the press conference. Doggett, who represents Bastrop County, said that two of his aides live in areas affected by the wildfires.
The confusion seems to be over what exactly the state requested. In separate letters to the president in the middle of last week, Perry and Dewhurst asked for the federal government to extend its Major Disaster Declaration, as Perry has been requesting since April. But neither letter specifically asked for individual assistance to people displaced by the Bastrop fires, which requires a different designation.
Dewhurst's letter Wednesday asked for the July disaster declaration to be broadened to "cover all fires beginning March 1" and covering 252 of the state's 254 counties. Dewhurst also wrote, "Texas' needs are too urgent for further delay. At a very minimum...we urge you to at least grant a Major Disaster Declaration covering the fires that began Labor Day weekend, and those risks and losses that we will inevitably continue to face in the weeks and months to come."
Mike Walz, a spokesman for Dewhurst, said this was an "official request" for a "statewide major disaster declaration."
FEMA said that the letter it received from Texas Wednesday constituted a request to extend the timeframe of the broad disaster declaration that President Obama had approved in July. That request covered issues like debris removal and road repair for a number of Texas counties, but not Bastrop County (the fires that began ravaging it Sept. 4 had not yet occurred, of course). The Major Disaster Declaration also did not include aid to individuals, unlike the Friday request.
Perry, in his letter to Obama on Thursday, said, "I urge you to grant the Major Disaster Declaration I have repeatedly requested since April (and which Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst requested again on my behalf yesterday)."
Perry, who cut short a campaign swing to visit Bastrop early last week, was in California most or all of Wednesday, preparing for the debate that night between Republican presidential candidates. He spoke by telephone with President Obama on Wednesday about the fires.
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for the governor, said: "Gov. Perry made the formal request to President Obama on Wednesday and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst sent [a] letter on the Governor’s behalf requesting the declaration on Wednesday as well. We are pleased that the declaration has been granted and the residents of Bastrop County can get the assistance they need."
Doggett noted that Dewhurst's Wednesday letter did not mention Bastrop County by name, even though, he said, Bastrop County judge Ronnie McDonald had asked the state for a major disaster declaration on Sunday night.
"I do find it troubling," Doggett said, that Texas did not submit Bastrop paperwork until Friday. Texas officials, he said, "apparently were still fighting an old war with the administration, instead of going forward and making a request for Bastrop county, which clearly had a unique and incredible tragedy, and then creating the suggestion there that the federal government was not being responsive."
FEMA had said as early as last Sunday, when the fire broke out, that it would cover up to 75 percent of firefighting costs, according to Doggett. The aid granted Friday will help Bastrop County residents find temporary shelter and repair their homes.
As to why Dewhurst had not requested aid specifically for Bastrop County earlier, Walz pointed to a passage in a Friday followup letter from Dewhurst to Obama, which said: "Because most of these fires are still burning, it has not been possible to even begin, much less complete, preliminary damage assessments in most of these areas. Accordingly, it is not possible to provide detailed damage information for most of these areas at this time."