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Although Russian River flood was worst in almost 25 years, Sonoma County officials say FEMA financial help unlikely

Tanya Furia and Gene Porter were rescued by boat from their Guerneville home last week.

'We had six feet of water,' recalled Porter, who stood outside the town's local assistance center Thursday clutching a complimentary cup of Starbucks coffee. 'Everything we own is on the street.'

'We were hoping to see some FEMA people,' said Furia,' but it looks like they're not here.'

In fact, Federal Emergency Management Agency field agents have been going door-to-door checking damage in flooded areas, predominantly along the Russian River. Before FEMA will dispense money to flood-weary victims, however, data must be gathered.

Persistent questions hang over the ongoing recovery effort: Are the feds coming to the rescue, and when does that cavalry show up? President Donald Trump 'has the power to declare a major disaster for any natural event … that is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond,' according to FEMA's website. Such a disaster declaration would open a spigot of resources, financial and physical, for property owners affected by the rising river's wrath.

While it's early in the process of applying for designation as a major disaster, Sonoma County officials doubt whether flood victims will be getting any help from FEMA this time around. Even though the west county is drying out from the worst flood here in a quarter century — with 2,572 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed after the river crested at 45.4 feet, or 13 feet above flood level — the arcane calculus of FEMA's formula for awarding assistance may work against victims.

At Thursday's special session of the county's Board of Supervisors, director of emergency services Chris Godley warned 'at this time it's not clear we have sufficient damages' to clear the $56 million uninsured damage threshold required to receive FEMA public assistance, one of the agency's two streams of relief.

Will politics play a part in any of this? Considering the many fights the Trump administration has picked with California — over cannabis, immigration, high speed rail, offshore drilling and other issues — it's understandable some flood victims might wonder if they'll get a fair shake from this president.

'This is one of those situations where I'll look to see what he does, and ignore what he says,' said Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who pointed out that Trump has issued major disaster declarations for California on multiple occasions.

'I trust that the career professionals at FEMA and other agencies will make sure there's fairness and equity in these outcomes, and not let partisan politics, or an anti-California agenda, drive something that would be, frankly, un-American,' Huffman said.

But here's the big catch: Trump isn't going to make a major disaster declaration if FEMA doesn't recommend he do so. There's a process here — a wonky, inside-baseball, data- and acronym-intensive chain of events that begins on the ground. Or, in the case of this calamity, in the mud.

In the days after the floodwaters receded, teams fanned out over the affected areas to conduct preliminary disaster assessments to measure the magnitude of the event. Those teams include agents from FEMA, California's Office of Emergency Services and Sonoma County. Their mission is to compile an inventory of the damage, 'a catalog,' said Godley 'of all the impacts of the community, from public infrastructure' — roads, schools, water systems — to private property, to hidden costs such as trauma counseling for victims and overtime pay for first responders.

The more specific and granular the disaster assessment, the better, Godley said.

'There's a significant responsibility for the local governments and communities to tell our story clearly and with sufficient detail to really allow' bureaucrats in Sacramento and Washington D.C., 'to see how significant the impact has been,' he said.

When the county's disaster assessment is complete, it will go to the state's emergency services officials, who then will decide whether or not to submit a request to Trump, through FEMA.

That ask does not come in the form of a one-size-fits-all document. 'You don't just say, 'Hey President Trump, can we have disaster assistance?'' said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the state emergency services office.

If the president eventually declares last week's flood a major disaster, FEMA aid would come in a variety of categories, falling under the two main rubrics of Individual assistance — housing, medical, child care, unemployment, legal and funeral costs, to name a few — and public assistance, including debris removal and help repairing roads and bridges.

Based on the calamity, requests for federal help are tailored to the categories of assistance the victims most require. 'It's not like there's one key to one door,' Alexander said. 'It's more like a janitor's ring of keys to multiple doors.'

As Godley said Thursday, Sonoma County residents could be locked out of FEMA aid for this devastating flood. To qualify for FEMA's public assistance, a disaster in California must cause at least $56 million in damage not reimbursable by insurance. To arrive at that figure, FEMA multiplies the number of people in the state, based on the 2010 census, by $1.50.

While the three-day storm and subsequent flooding caused an estimated $155 million in damage, county officials said, FEMA only considers damage not covered by insurance. That uninsured damage total from last week's deluge is still being tallied.

Regarding individual assistance from FEMA, there is no set minimum damage total, according to agency documents. The agency weighs many factors, a critical one being the 'trauma' residents suffer in the disaster.

Remarking on the president's swift declaration of a major disaster for Alabama this week after tornadoes killed 23 people in Lee County, Godley said of the president's action: 'That was primarily due to trauma.' Devastating as the recent flood was to many living and working along the Russian River, there was not a single death.

FEMA's formula has been widely criticized for penalizing disaster victims in less populated parts of the country. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district encompasses west county, blasted the agency's system, saying it 'essentially disadvantages already disadvantaged communities.'

'It's extremely frustrating for us in local government, and for all of our residents who are hurting,' she said, 'that this is being treated like a second-rate disaster because it wasn't expensive enough.'

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed to this story.

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