En route to El Paso with President Barack Obama on May 10, White House press secretary Jay Carney jumped on a reporter’s question about whether the administration’s denial of a disaster declaration for Texas was politically motivated.
In an April 16 letter to Obama, Gov. Rick Perry requested a "major disaster declaration" as a result of wildfires that have burned through the state. The request sought federal aid to be reimbursed up to 75 percent of firefighting costs already expended and to help the state fight burning fires in 252 of the state’s 254 counties, including Travis.
On May 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request after concluding that recovery needs did not exceed what state and local governments could handle, according to a May 4 Star-Telegram news article.
Besides, Carney told reporters, "this administration has been extremely responsive to the state of Texas’ requests for wildfire management assisting grants — 25 of them at last count," he said. "All that have been requested had been, as far as I know it, have been provided."
Indeed, the state has received 27 grants requested in connection with 27 wildfires that burned about 1 million acres in 31 counties. The grants cover 75 percent of the firefighting costs associated with the 27 fires. FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen later told us the grants factored into the agency’s denial of the request for the disaster declaration because they "fund many of the same emergency response activities Gov. Perry was seeking assistance for."
Separately, some affected Texas residents are eligible for other federal help, including low-interest loans and assistance to ranchers and farmers who lost livestock in the fires.
Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor told us that from Sept. 1 through May 15, local fire departments and the state spent about $97.5 million on wildfires. Of that, the state has pitched in $90.8 million, and expects to be reimbursed about $23 million from the 27 approved federal grants to date.
Perry isn’t placated. During an interview on NewsRadio 1080 KRLD on May 11, Perry said: "We've had over 9,000 different fires in the state of Texas, 2.3 million acres burned. If that doesn't rise to the level of a major emergency I don't know what does."
As of May 16, according to the service, 10,123 Texas fires burned nearly 2.6 million acres in 237 counties.
On May 26, Perry appealed the Obama administration's decision to deny the declaration.
But this isn’t the first time the federal government hasn’t granted Texas’ aid requests. We found that it has gone both ways on fire-related requests for disaster declarations from Texas.
— In February 2009, according to FEMA, the Obama administration denied a Perry request for an emergency declaration for wildfires, and his subsequent request for a major disaster declaration. According to an April 2009 Abilene Reporter News article, Perry requested the declaration after wildfires burned through 400,000 acres, destroying 200 homes.
— In 2008, the Bush administration denied Perry’s request for a major disaster declaration due to wildfires that had burned, according to Perry’s office, nearly 940,000 acres in 215 counties, the San Antonio Express-News reported March 20, 2008. The reason: "We just didn’t see that the state’s capacity to respond was overwhelmed," said FEMA spokesman Earl Armstrong, according to the Express-News article.
After the state appealed the rejection, the government granted a emergency disaster declaration, which is more limited in scope and doesn’t have the long-term federal recovery programs that can come with a major disaster declaration. Texas also received fire management assistance grants for 22 fires that year, according to FEMA.
— In January 2006, President Bush issued a major disaster declaration after at least 450 fires, blamed largely on a long drought, burned across north and west Texas. At the time, Perry wrote the federal government: "Based on these extreme conditions, the magnitude of response required is beyond the resources and capabilities of the state and the affected local governments," according to a January 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram news article.
Since 1953, Texas has received more major disaster declarations than any other state — 84 — mostly for severe storms, flooding and tornadoes. California, the largest state, has received the second most (78) followed by Oklahoma (68) and Florida (63). Rhode Island has received the least (8).
So far, Obama has issued one major disaster declaration for Texas — in August 2010, for Hurricane Alex, according to FEMA. Before that, President George W. Bush issued two major disaster declarations after hurricanes hit the state in July and September 2008.
Carney correctly summed up the Obama administration’s approval of fire-fighting grants for Texas but he glosses over its denial of the disaster declaration, which could have covered more counties and provided retroactive assistance.
We rate his statement as Mostly True.