Why Douglas County didn’t declare a disaster

Douglas County Commissioners and Douglas County Emergency Management’s decision not to file a disaster declaration has come under question, been criticized, and created opportunities for much public comment and debate. The recent flash flood event in north eastern portion of the Johnson Lane, Central Johnson Lane, and Fish Springs areas of the county was a significant event that many would think would warrant a disaster declaration. It is certainly understood why some residents, especially those impacted, may feel that the commission should have declared a disaster. The losses and recovery translate into real dollars and personal loss. Each and every commissioner, including Commissioner-elect Thaler, truly empathizes with those residents, but the guidelines, criteria, and threshold amounts are the limiting factor when it comes to a disaster declaration. The declaration of a state of emergency is a serious decision, and is not one that is made without the consultation of several professional and technical opinions. The requirements that must be met are fundamental to the decision making process.

Within 30 minutes of the event, a quorum of Douglas County Commissioners was assembled into the Policy Group under the Emergency Operations Plan guidance. The interim county manager, county clerk, and a representative from the District Attorney’s Office were also in attendance. The group received a comprehensive briefing on the flood event from East Fork Fire personnel who were assigned various divisions of the affected areas. Consultation was also made with the State Division of Emergency Management regarding the declaration option. There is no doubt that this flash flood event had a direct impact on both public and private property, however, minimum damage thresholds were not going to be met, based on initial assessments.

After reviewing and assessing damages further, Douglas County and the state would have had to provide justification to FEMA that it had $3,753,710 in public infrastructure damage. For an Individual Assistance declaration a minimum of 240 homes would need to have been majorly affected/damaged. Landscaping and yard damages are not eligible under FEMA programs or the State’s Disaster Relief Account. FEMA will also not pay for debris removal from private land unless life safety were or is an issue.

Under the process, Douglas County would have needed to declare a county disaster and then submit to the state, who in turn would have had to issue a state declaration. A comprehensive damage assessment would have then been conducted and provided to the governor to verify whether or not the damages met the FEMA’s thresholds for federal declaration. The state would need to prove to FEMA that we do not have the financial wherewithal to help the county back to pre-disaster conditions. We would have also had to prove that some other programs are not financially assisting the county and the homeowners such as insurance policies, volunteer organizations, HOA’s, special improvement districts, etc.

Douglas County requested the Nevada Division of Emergency Management to review past applications and claims for individual assistance. Of the FEMA-approved flooding disaster from a flooding event in 2006, FEMA determined approximately $58,000 to be eligible for reimbursement of which 75 percent of that was reimbursable but only for public infrastructure damage. The Individual Assistance Program was not approved for this disaster. The 2006 flooding event in Douglas County impacted several areas of the county and the state, and therefor was a statewide issue.

In every presidentially declared disaster that the Nevada Division of Emergency Management has requested, approximately 11 since 1997, and where Individual Assistance was requested as part of the declaration, it has only been approved twice. The 1997 floods in Northern Nevada and the Fernley Flood, where over 300 homes were significantly damaged from a single event. In contrast, the Caughlin Ranch Fire resulted in no Individual Assistance Program applications and the Washoe Drive Fire was denied an Individual Assistance declaration. Even those events which caused widespread damages, did not qualify for assistance. The TRE and Bison fires both received disaster declarations at the local level, but failed to rise to a state level. The TRE fire did receive a Fire Management Assistance Grant for 75 percent of the suppression costs of local government, while the Bison Fire, Douglas County’s largest fire, was denied assistance.

If it were possible to secure a FEMA Disaster Declaration, they will not pay for “everything.” The individual Assistance Program will only cover immediate needs, repair and replacement up to a certain amount after a homeowner provides proof that insurance will not cover the expenses or other sources cannot assist first.

Under conditions such as those experienced with the flash flood event, the entire process for declaring a disaster declaration is vested in the Douglas County Emergency Response Plan and generally initiated by the designated Emergency Management Director, a Deputy Emergency Management Director, or the County Manager. Douglas County currently contracts with the East Fork Fire and Paramedic Districts for Emergency Management Services, a measure that has saved Douglas County in excess of $750,000 over the past six years, and at a time when the county’s financial conditions were being heavily impacted by the down turn in the local and national economy. Both state and federal law mandate that the county provide and make provisions for Emergency Management Services. The East Fork Fire and Paramedic District have a level of emergency management expertise on staff that have made this arrangement possible, including one chief officer who is one of only six certified emergency management professionals in the State of Nevada.

The preceding was prepared by Tod F. Carlini, District Fire Chief/Emergency Management Director in concert with The Nevada Division of Emergency Management.


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