Yarnell wildfire federal aid 'snub': Did Obama-Texas-Arizona feud play a role?

The Obama administration said Friday that federal taxpayers won’t help to rebuild in the wake of the Yarnell Valley fire in Arizona. Gov. Jan Brewer’s reaction? 'I’m deeply troubled.'

Matt York/AP
A "19 Heroes" patch is attached to a flagpole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013.

It’s happened again: President Obama’s administration has turned down a post-disaster emergency request from a political adversary, in this case Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who had pleaded with Washington for rebuilding help for last month’s Yarnell Hill wildfire, which claimed the lives of 19 “hotshot” firefighters.

Two years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned down parts of a similar request from another political combatant, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after a record wildfire season in the Lone Star State destroyed thousands of homes. (Obama subsequently reversed the decision, allowing more counties to apply for federal help than originally approved.) And earlier this year, FEMA turned down a request of assistance from the town of West, Texas, where a fertilizer explosion killed 13 people, mostly firefighters.

FEMA announced the Yarnell decision Friday, three days after Obama spoke in the state about housing and the economy. An approval would have meant federal help for people who didn’t have sufficient insurance, as well as the dispatching of a federal team to do flood prevention work in the county.

Obama, Brewer and Perry have had nasty political rows in the past.

Brewer said Obama had a few choice words on a tarmac last year over criticisms in her book, “Scorpions for Breakfast,” after which she was seen wagging her finger at the President. When Perry during his 2012 presidential campaign criticized Obama for never having worn a military uniform, Obama shot back that the Texas governor should “be a little more careful about what you say.”

Moreover, Obama’s Department of Justice has sued Arizona over its tough new immigration laws, and stopped Texas from implementing a new voter ID law, riling residents and leaders of both states.

To be sure, there are other explanations for the lack of an emergency declaration for the Yarnell fire, where the hotshot team was caught up in a fast-moving and unpredictable wall of blaze.

FEMA turns down dozens of requests a year, and Obama, in a spirit of cost control, seems to have made a concerted effort to take a harder look at what role federal taxpayers should play in individual disasters. Obama in 2011 granted a record 242 emergency declarations, but that number dropped to 112 in 2012. Nearly eight months into 2013, only 55 emergency declarations have been approved.

Yet for some observers, there’s evidence that politics, too, may be playing at least a marginal role in the push-and-pull over the division of power between Washington and the 50 state capitals. Some progressive critics scoff at the notion that leaders like Brewer and Perry, both of whom are strong states’ rights backers and often laud their states’ independent, conservative spirits, should complain when they can’t get help from Washington.

What’s more, the denials stand in stark contrast to federal help in the wake of hurricane Sandy, albeit a grander disaster, where a Republican, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, formed a friendly alliance with Obama that helped build support for a comprehensive aid package.

Some commentators in Texas have drawn a comparison between Mr. Christie’s response and the decision by several Texas lawmakers, including US Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and US Rep. Bill Flores, who voted against the $17 billion aid package to Sandy victims.

“The harsh message [Texas Republicans] consistently send to the public is: If you’re the victim of a major disaster, that’s your tough luck. It’s not the federal government’s job to help you recover and rebuild. So it’s not surprising that [Perry’s request for aid for the Town of West] fell on deaf ears,” Tod Robberson, an op-ed columnist for the Dallas Morning News, wrote in June. “That doesn’t excuse FEMA for its callous response. I say: A pox on both your houses. When people are suffering, it’s time to put politics aside.”

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