FEMA Coffers Can't Cover Fire Damage


WITHOUT special congressional appropriations, there will be no current funds within the vastly depleted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to compensate victims of the fire in Oakland, Calif.The federal agency was formed in 1979 as a reorganization of five other federal relief arms to provide grants and low-interest loans to individuals, businesses, and public entities displaced by floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Since then, FEMA's yearly outlay has averaged about $100 million to $125 million spread over about 24 disasters per year, according to FEMA spokesman Marvin Davis. But from October 1990 to April 1991, that average was surpassed by damaging ice storms in Indiana and New York as well as flooding in the central United States. President Bush last week asked Congress for $693 million in additional funds for FEMA, but observers say that won't cover already inadequate 1992 projections - funds still stalled in the unresolved federal budget. And FEMA is still dealing with relief requests from its worst year on record, 1989. "We have some big-ticket claims from the [San Francisco] earthquake and hurricane [Hugo] of 1989," says Mr. Davis. The organization has been taken to task in several northern California newspaper editorials for feet-dragging. "FEMA needs new leadership, new management, and a new way of doing business before the next disaster occurs," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper cited 175 separate relief projects on hold, waiting for $245 million promised two years ago. But Davis says long-term engineering studies of structural damages to buildings like San Francisco's City Hall and Stanford University's facilities have prolonged relief efforts. To overcome backlogs, Congress supplemented FEMA's budget to more than $1 billion both in 1989 and '90. But subsequent demands have forced officials to withhold assistance to public entities to make sure individuals' and families' needs have been covered first. Claims totaling $50 million by local and state governments in New England after hurricane Bob are on hold. Davis and FEMA official Carl Suchoki say once an area is declared a disaster by President Bush, the law requires that all legitimate claims must be covered, though the process may take some time, due in part to uneven numbers of disasters year to year. In 1988, for instance, there were 11 presidentially declared disasters nationwide; this year there have been 39. "We have made many attempts to streamline our process, with some success, but we ... have a long way to go," Davis says. Beyond the public-sector assistance that is on hold for now, FEMA relief to individuals is twofold: grants for temporary housing to those displaced - one to two months for renters, up to three months for homeowners; and low-interest loans (4 to 8 percent) for uninsured or underinsured damage to real estate. There are also filing categories for transportation, counseling, small business loans, and medical and unemployment benefits. California has no entity that supplies its citizens similar relief, according to Carol Horne, emergency services coordinator for the state Office of Emergency Services. "State of emergency" declaration by Gov. Pete Wilson is merely a prelude to petitioning the White House for federal aid. When that assistance becomes available - based on estimates of how far needs exceed local abilities to cope - field offices will be established in the affected areas. Rent checks can be ready in as little as seven days, says Sally Ziolkowski, emergency analyst for FEMA's San Francisco office. Though current estimates of Oakland damage hover between $1 billion and $2 billion, Ms. Horne says applications for FEMA loans are well below that because the agency covers only uninsured and underinsured portions of existing policies. Though 560 homes were destroyed in Santa Barbara last year in a similar fire, only about $5 million in low-interest loans have been doled out. Though many residents nationwide have expressed concern about slow response by FEMA to municipalities since 1989, officials say funding to individuals is usually more forthcoming.

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