Trump holds key to storm relief for Malheur County

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE — Idaho received one.

So did Washington.

But a federal disaster declaration for Malheur County is still pending, nearly four months after severe winter storms devastated the area.

That’s because the disaster declaration submitted by the state appears to be trapped on President Donald Trump’s desk.

Malheur County public agencies racked up $1.6 million in costs from the storms. Ontario School District incurred the most, recording $834,887 in costs while Saint Alphonsus Medical Center registered the second-highest total with $299,368 in total damage costs. Nyssa School District claimed $71,900 in costs and damage.

As of last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not received a signed disaster declaration for the county from the president. There is no firm estimate when, or if, the declaration will be approved.

“They don’t tell us the timeline. It falls under executive privilege so it’s on their timeline,” said Peter Sessmun, FEMA regional spokesman in Seattle.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden said Friday no progress had been made regarding a presidential signature for the Oregon disaster declaration.

Trump recently approved disaster declarations for Washington and Idaho connected to the winter storms.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said he is “disappointed” about the delay in the disaster declaration for the county.

“It is frustrating,” he said.

There are two types of disaster declarations. An emergency declaration provides help during a disaster. The major disaster declaration, such as the one pending for Malheur County, helps with recovery. The state’s request for a major disaster declaration focused on helping public entities in 10 counties.

Under the public assistance provision, FEMA provides grants to government entities and some non-profit groups for the removal of debris, repair, replacement and the restoration of damaged, publicly owned structures.

The state also has stepped in with $1 million for Malheur County. One-fourth of that is being used to hire engineers to assess buildings and another $250,000 was budgeted for removing spoiled onions. The remaining $500,000 will be used to match federal grants if Trump signs the disaster declaration.

The damage assessment of commercial and agriculture buildings is in full swing, said Stuart Reitz, the cropping and systems agent at the Malheur County Extension Station.

“Private engineering firms are doing those assessments,” said Reitz.

Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency handles the distribution of the $1 million.

Little will be needed to deal with onion disposal, it turns out.

“We ended up using $11,500 from the state which kind of helped cover the upfront costs of getting the trench open,” said Craig Geddes, the Malheur County director of environmental health.

Costs, he said, included building a road to the trench, and digging and fencing the trench.

He said the landfill collected about six million pounds of onions through last Wednesday, the last day for such disposal.

Melissa Drugge of Business Oregon said money not spent for a specific project – such as onion disposal – will be available for other work.

“We want to identify the need and then we want to identify the source it can be funded with,” she said.

Drugge said her agency is keeping a close eye on the storm recovery efforts in Malheur County.

“We are still having open discussions with locals about the impact related to the storm,” she said.

Verini is satisfied with the help from Salem.

“The state, believe it or not, has really reached out a hand this time around that we’ve never seen in the past. They truly are trying to help us,” he said.

Reitz said the assessments are being conducted on about 100 agriculture structures — “either buildings on people’s farms or storage buildings or packing facilities.”

The assessments will be delivered to the owners.

“Then it is up to them to make whatever repairs are needed,” said Reitz.

Alvin Scott, county planning director, said many people appear to be still working with their insurance firms before they begin rebuilding efforts. He said there been a few people through his office seeking permits.

“I haven’t had an awful lot of applications. I’ve had inquiries,” he said.

In Oregon, a farmer can get exempted from building permit requirements.

“If they are determined to be a bona fide farmer they don’t have to pay for a building permit but it only applies to parcels that are designated as exclusive farm or range use,” Scott said.

So far the county has processed just six such permits.

Scott said farmers who want to apply for the exemption can get the forms on the Malheur County’s website.

Some onion packing firms aren’t rebuilding in Malheur County.

“I know of two that are moving across the river. Both of them are pretty big size,” said Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association

Skeen did not publicly identify the firms.

Skeen said the reconstruction effort is going forward but construction costs are “substantially higher than they were a year ago.”

Vale City Manager Lynn Findley said he has asked for FEMA assistance to help the city recover from the winter.

“I have listed the Golden Slipper as an imminent public safety hazard and requested funding to clean it up,” Findley said.

Findley also said he asked for money to help repair damage to the airport runway and secure reimbursement for the costs of snow removal.

“FEMA will reimburse us for a period of time for our snow removal for a 48-hour period during the heaviest part of the storm,” said Findley.

Like many others, Findley is still waiting for the disaster declaration.

At the Willowcreek Store, progress has been made in a long reconstruction project, store owner Robin Hutson said.

“Today we are standing up walls as we speak,” Hutson said.

The historic store was demolished after snow caved in the roof. Damage was estimated at $400,000.

Huton said she hopes to open the doors of the replacement this summer.

“We were planning on June but because of weather delays and concrete delays and material delays everything has been held up about three weeks. I am guessing we will open closer to the end of June,” said Hutson.

Have a news tip? Email: [email protected] or call Pat Caldwell at (541) 473-3377.