Odds against California getting disaster declaration for Fresno County

WASHINGTON — Presidents rarely designate drought-stricken regions as major disaster areas. That could prove a problem for Fresno County, which is both dry and hurting.

The last time drought was the basis for a major presidential disaster designation within the continental United States was in 1980, in New Jersey. California officials are hoping that President Barack Obama will buck that historical trend on Fresno County's behalf.

But while the presidential disaster request made June 19 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on sounds powerful, it may not be well targeted.

"The programs provided under a presidential declaration generally are not the kind most needed in a drought," Ernest Abbott, former general counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted Tuesday.

Major presidential disaster designations are not the only way federal aid can be steered to needy areas. The Agriculture Department, for instance, can provide benefits to growers through its own lower-level disaster declarations.

Last year, more than three dozen California counties, including most of the Central Valley, received this Agriculture Department disaster designation because of drought. The Valley counties are now in line for this designation to be renewed.

Schwarzenegger is also using his power as governor to funnel money to governments and non-profit agencies in drought-affected areas through the California Disaster Assistance Act.

"These other steps do not have as much impact as turning on the dams, but it is something," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "And (Schwarzenegger) benefits politically as well by being seen as doing something."

Presidential declarations carry more symbolic weight and offer different benefits. They are also harder to obtain. While a White House decision concerning Fresno County is still probably weeks away, history is not on the county's side.

The federal law authorizing presidential declarations specifically include droughts as the kind of disasters that can be recognized. The selection process, though, tilts more toward disasters with outright physical destruction and abrupt overwhelming of government forces.

The major selection criteria identified by FEMA include "the number of homes destroyed," "impact on the infrastructure" and the presence of "imminent threats to public health and safety." FEMA does not list unemployment as a criteria for identifying disasters, which generally come on quickly, like a storm or wildfire.

"Droughts appear over a period of time; it's not an event that appears immediately," noted Steve Peterson, of the Farm Service Agency. "People adjust to lack of water."

The Fresno County water shortages, moreover, stem from a mix of man-made and natural circumstances. Water deliveries have been curtailed throughout the San Joaquin Valley because of low precipitation as well as judicial and regulatory decisions designed to protect endangered species and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Abbott, who served at FEMA during the Clinton administration, said "it is an interesting question" and subject to debate as to whether the deliberate water diversions protecting the environment might disqualify Fresno County as a major disaster area.

All told, FEMA records show, drought accounted for only 46 major disaster declarations since 1963. The most recent, in August 2007, was in Micronesia. Most occurred in the mid-1970s. A total of 2,952 major disasters have been declared by presidents since 1963, the FEMA database shows.

The 183 major disasters designated in California since 1963 range from the 1983 Coalinga earthquake and the 1997 San Joaquin Valley freeze to myriad forest fires. None has been a result of drought, according to the FEMA database.

"The situation is dire," said the governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Page. "Clearly, it is time for the federal government to step in."

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said this is a cause that Obama should embrace, no matter what history shows or FEMA criteria says.

"If they don't help or give some sort of relief," Cunha said of the Obama administration, "we're going to have ourselves a mess that can't be cleaned up in a year or two."

The additional aid could include extended unemployment assistance, legal aid, counseling, food supplies and more. It would not include more water deliveries, unless the Obama administration took action outside of the usual disaster relief system.

Disaster designation requests customarily take several weeks to process. On May 20, for instance, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon asked Obama to make a major disaster declaration covering a part of the state damaged by severe storms.

Obama issued the declaration on June 19. The same day Schwarzenegger made his own request on Fresno County's behalf.

(Doyle reported from Washington, Ellis from Fresno for The Fresno Bee)