By Taylor Perse and Taylor Griggs
Recent wildfires in Oregon decimated communities across the state. This disaster, combined with ongoing economic struggle in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, has created turmoil for Oregonians. Congressman Peter DeFazio and other Oregon electeds have stepped up to get more federal assistance.
Congress has been going back and forth about a new stimulus package for months, with many Democrats saying the CARES Act passed at the end of March wasn’t enough to help Americans deal with the economic crisis the country is facing.
A new stimulus bill is in the works, but it will likely require Democrats to significantly compromise on how much is included in the package.
In the midst of election season, DeFazio has been pushing for a new stimulus package and has asked for money for Western wildfire recovery to be included in the COVID-19 relief bill. DeFazio tells Eugene Weekly, it’s critical to provide the country with financial help right now, but the Democrats have faced repeated setbacks from President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans.
Though an updated $2.2 trillion dollar stimulus bill, called the HEROES Act, passed the Democrat-majority House of Representatives on Oct. 1, it hit a major roadblock in continuing to move forward.
Throughout the week of Oct. 5, Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi went back and forth about whether a stimulus package would move forward before the election at all.
But in an interview with EW, DeFazio says Trump is finally warming up to the idea of passing a stimulus package that will include funding for unemployment, Paycheck Protection Program loans and funding for the USPS, though the latest offer is $1.8 trillion dollars for this relief.
As chair of the Committee on Infrastructure and Transportation, DeFazio has written legislation to include in the stimulus bill that will require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to share in more costs in fighting these disasters across the country.
DeFazio has also been leading Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and other Oregon elects in asking FEMA to increase federal funding for recovery after the wildfires that destroyed multiple parts of the state in early September.
“We ask you to take into account the size and scale of this disaster as well as the backdrop upon which this disaster fell. In the span of a few short days, fires burned an area the size of the State of Rhode Island,” DeFazio and the other lawmakers wrote in a letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor. “As a result, thousands of our fellow Oregonians have been displaced, and countless businesses have been lost.”
With the increased cost share proposed in the bill, FEMA would cover at least 90 percent of the cost for all declared emergencies and major disasters, which would cover incidents like the Oregon wildfires, and 100 percent of COVID-19-related emergency and major disaster declarations.
For Oregonians, the cost share would take the burden off of the state, having FEMA cover the majority of the wildfire relief with a focus on mitigating hazards. Right now, DeFazio says, it is crucial to clean up debris and ensure that people of Eugene have safe drinking water from the McKenzie River.
At a Saturday, Oct. 3, meeting at the University of Oregon DeFazio spoke with FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor about ongoing wildfire recovery efforts.
“We are looking at a long path to recovery. This is an absolutely unprecedented event,” DeFazio said at the meeting.
DeFazio and Gaynor said that this increased federal aid will have a big impact on how Oregon can recover from devastating wildfires and be better prepared for similar events in the future.
DeFazio said that his committee has met political challenges to make sure communities have the resources they need to recover from disasters and mitigate future problems.
“It’s pretty bitterly partisan in Washington,” DeFazio said. “But whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, disasters happen to everyone.”
The Republican-majority Senate will ultimately determine if this critical bill will be passed, but DeFazio says something is better than nothing.
“I’m urging flexibility,” he says. “Tens of millions of people are suffering. This package in any form will help mitigate a lot of that damage.”