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Feds to provide flood aid for roads, but not for Russian River residents

Russian River homeowners whose property was damaged in this winter’s severe storms will not be eligible for federal aid pledged Saturday by President Donald Trump, though Sonoma County hopes to recoup nearly $20 million in damage to local roads and other infrastructure.

The historic late February storms that temporarily turned Guerneville into an island constituted a “major disaster,” the White House announced this weekend, nearly three months after the storms hit. That designation opened the door for more than a dozen Northern California counties, including Sonoma, Lake, Marin, Mendocino and Napa, to apply for federal funds to repair public infrastructure, such as the score of county roads damaged by mudslides.

But county residents whose homes were flooded will not be eligible for financial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because state officials determined the amount of damage was insufficient to qualify.

“Unfortunately, it all comes down to a numbers game,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents west Sonoma County and called the outcome “very disappointing and very frustrating.”

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Office of Emergency Services is responsible for submitting formal requests to FEMA for disaster aid. Eric Lamoureux, the acting deputy director for response and recovery, said CalOES looks at FEMA’s history of approving disaster aid when considering whether to apply.

“We’re not going to submit a request when we know, based on the way FEMA does its analysis, that (the request) would be denied,” Lamoureux said.

FEMA has historically provided California with individualized disaster aid only in areas where more than 800 homes receive major damage, Lamoureux said. State investigators who conducted a thorough inspection determined only one Sonoma County home was totally destroyed by the flooding, with 151 sustaining “major damage,” he said.

That’s a far cry from Sonoma County’s initial guess that at least 1,760 homes sustained “major damage.” County officials in early March also estimated the total damage from the storms was about $155 million, the bulk of which was about $91.6 million in damage to flooded homes.

County officials could not say Monday whether they had revised their immediate assessment of storm damage to homes.

They could, however, say that damage to public infrastructure made up about $23 million. The official number for public infrastructure damages that are actually eligible for reimbursement is about $19.5 million, at least $1.2 million of which will be paid by Sonoma County, Hopkins said.

When considering that FEMA almost certainly will not approve every request, Hopkins said the county’s total share of costs was now estimated at about $3 million, or about $3.7 million less than it would have been without federal aid. The additional federal aid takes a substantial amount of weight off Sonoma County at a time when its officials are paring back its budget.

“Any additional cost coverage that we can get at this point is incredibly beneficial,” she said.

To Hopkins, federal rules governing eligibility for disaster aid for homeowners are biased toward calamity in dense urban areas, leaving rural residents such as those along the Russian River out in the cold.

“It’s heartbreaking for them, and it’s very hard for me to explain to people why they’re being treated differently than in previous disasters,” she said.

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