Three months have passed since the North Bay was hit by the most destructive fires in U.S. history and many still wonder: Where is the president in all of this?
Although he made four visits to areas devastated by recent hurricanes, Donald Trump has yet to step foot in California. And he seems far more interested in tweeting about his own political aptitude, if not amplitude, than in consoling locals on their tribulations.
During a visit to Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Federal Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen offered assurances that federal officials are committed to helping Sonoma County and other fire-ravaged areas rebuild. During a brief news conference in Coffey Park, she said she was “proud of the progress that is being made” and said the government is “committed to supporting local communities.”
But her words were less than assuring. When asked about the status of $81 billion in federal emergency relief for California and other states hit by recent natural disasters, Nielsen equivocated. “We will be working with all of our federal partners to ensure Californians have what they need,” she said.
That’s what concerns us. Trump appears to have a very different idea of what Californians need than those who live here do. Given his decision announced last week to allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all United States coastal waters, for example, the president seems more interested in giving California offshore oil platforms than supplemental relief from wildfire destruction. (More on that in a future editorial.)
He also seems to have very little interest in asking Californians themselves.
Nielsen, who was confirmed to her post than a month before her visit, is the highest ranking official in the Trump administration to visit the North Bay since the fires, although Vice President Mike Pence visited the state’s Office of Emergency Services headquarters in Sacramento in mid-October.
The president did make a federal disaster declaration for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last month, just as he did with the North Bay fires in early October. Those declarations mean the federal government may cover up to 75 percent of firefighting efforts and costs from recovering from the blaze, such as debris removal. Meanwhile, FEMA has provided nearly $14.1 million in grants to individuals or households impacted by the fires while the Small Business Administration has granted loans of $116.2 million to homeowners and renters and another $8.7 million to businesses. But given the enormity of this disaster — insured losses alone are expected to top $9 billion — much more federal assistance is needed.
Sonoma County and Santa Rosa remain particularly concerned about the long-term effects of having to pick up even 25 percent of the costs of firefighting and debris removal as well as dealing with the loss of property tax, sales tax and other revenue. The county stands to lose $21 million over the next two years, including $10.7 million related to lost tax revenue from homes and properties that were destroyed.
Santa Rosa, meanwhile, is projecting an $11.5 million drop in tax revenue. In addition, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County could be on the hook for $9.4 million to $23.4 million each for debris removal depending on how much the federal government agrees to cover. The amount of debris hauled away so far “is equal to the weight of four-fifths of the Golden Gate Bridge,” Nielsen said. But many more tons await to be removed.