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Does Disaster Relief Favor Some States Over Others?


Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by wildfires in Southern California. And this comes after wildfires in Northern California earlier this year. Now, the entire California congressional delegation has co-signed a letter to the House Appropriations Committee saying they need more money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Representative Jeff Denham is a Republican member from California and joins us now in the studios. Welcome back, Congressman.

JEFF DENHAM: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's wrong?

DENHAM: We've had big challenges across the entire country. This is unprecedented that we'd have this many natural disasters in one year.

INSKEEP: Multiple hurricanes, tons of fires.

DENHAM: Which is forcing us to respond very, very quickly. It's not common that you would have a supplemental bill that goes along the appropriations bill. You should have enough money in FEMA every year for your natural disasters. This year, we're going into our third supplemental, and we will probably have a fourth supplemental that's needed.

INSKEEP: I just want to make sure that people understand the terminology. You've got a budget. It goes over budget. You do the supplemental appropriation to get some extra money. You've had to do that three times.

DENHAM: Three times - this would be the third time next week.

INSKEEP: Has that ever happened before?

DENHAM: Not that I know of, and especially for California, making these types of requests, it is unprecedented. I mean, this is our biggest fire season in California history. It was before this set of fires that we're seeing right now. So, I mean, California's in a devastated position right now. The governor has made a very, very quick request. We've seen governors make mistakes in the past and wait weeks to make a request of the federal government or FEMA. Governor Jerry Brown has done it very, very quickly, and President Trump has responded very quickly. So with the previous fires, it took about 24 hours. It took less than that this time. And in both cases, both the state and federal government are working very, very closely together.

INSKEEP: At least among Californians it sounds like this is bipartisan. Send money, essentially, is what everybody's saying.

DENHAM: Yeah, just get government out of the way. Certainly send money, but where we need FEMA in place, we need to make sure that the bureaucracy is not holding up the funding and we're actually getting the Army Corps out there very, very quickly. So a lot of the bureaucracy we're trying to get out of the way but make sure the funding passes through very, very quickly.

INSKEEP: Army Corps of Engineers - that's part of the assistance that you're saying you want.

DENHAM: Yeah, absolutely. You need the Army Corps to come in and clear debris, to work with the firefighters. You also need the Department of Transportation to be able to clear roads and fix roads very, very quickly. You need USDA with a lot of these agriculture and forest areas that are involved as well.

INSKEEP: Congressman, I want to ask about something else. The increase in hurricanes, the increase in the number of fires, can be linked to climate change. You can't link any individual event with climate change, but this is something that scientists see. Do we have to anticipate - because as a country we're not addressing it - do we have to anticipate more and more spending to deal with more and more disasters?

DENHAM: I think that when you're talking about California fires, we know that we can do a better job of cleaning up our forests, thinning them, getting out the underbrush when we just let them sit for decades. And you have wet years. Like, we finally had some precipitation last year that created more growth, and now we've got the perfect conditions for fires because of the dried out and very low humidity. We're going see fire. So we've got to do a better job of cleaning up our forests. And when it comes to hurricanes, we've got to do a better job of building to proper standards. We saw that after Hurricane Hugo. We changed the standards. We're now changing the standards again to build stronger and build smarter.

INSKEEP: Congressman Jeff Denham of California, thanks.

DENHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.