PD Editorial: Politics stalls disaster relief

California and the West are headed into what could be another scorching wildfire season. Yet Congress and the White House can't agree on paying for past natural disasters, let alone what lies ahead.

The Senate should follow the House's lead and promptly approve a disaster relief package. The House has acted twice - most recently approving a $19 billion aid package on Friday, but the Senate is taking its time. Negotiations reportedly will continue this week.

Disaster relief typically is a bipartisan issue in Congress, but this year it fell victim to President Donald Trump and key Republicans' insistence that the legislation include billions for America's southern border but not for Puerto Rico's hurricane recovery. Democrats dug in on the other side of both issues.

The House-passed bill includes money for disaster recovery from wildfires, flooding, tornadoes and hurricanes. It also would fund wildfire and other disaster remediation and related work.

Whether flooding or wildfires, Sonoma County knows such natural disasters only too well. Locally, the bill provides help for community needs from our devastating wildfires in 2017 and for grape growers whose crops were harmed by smoke from last year's fires.

Once an aid package becomes law, residents and organizations across the state might be eligible for billions of dollars in federal assistance.

The money is urgently needed. Rebuilding and recovering will take years, and the ongoing congressional impasse takes an emotional toll as well as delaying action to address economic, environmental and other losses. For example, although many homes are being rebuilt in Santa Rosa, much of the damaged municipal infrastructure has yet to be repaired.

Meanwhile, last year's deadly wildfires in California resulted in more than $12 billion in insurance claims, which in turn is making it difficult for many residents to obtain home insurance. Utility costs also have risen to cover wildfire costs, and some communities could face blackouts if PG&E shuts down powerlines to prevent sparking wildfires during periods of high fire danger and high winds. Much of the state is predicted to have above-normal wildfire danger this year.

Trump tweeted his dismay over the House bill, yet last week his administration and the Senate GOP leadership also signaled more willingness to negotiate with Democrats. We hope that happens on all sides.

Early this year, the House approved $14 billion in disaster relief for civilian, military and government programs. For Friday's vote, billions were added for Midwest flood relief and other projects, and some senators want to add money for such projects as port dredging.

Republicans and Democrats agree on most parts of the disaster relief bill. Common sense would dictate they pass such an agreeable measure while continuing to work on the contentious parts - but politics and common sense don't always align.

As Fortune magazine reported last week, “From Mexico Beach, Fla., to Santa Rosa, Calif., the ravages of Hurricanes Michael and Maria, as well as structural and environmental damage from the fires, are still to be repaired.”

The needs are real. How much longer must we wait to repair the past damage while readying for the present danger? Congress must act, swiftly and definitively.

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