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Almost three months ago, a wildfire destroyed most of a farming town in Washington state. Malden, Wash., is still waiting for the Trump administration to respond to the state's disaster declaration request. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that many of the town's mostly lower-income residents have had to rely on donations while they wait.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When historic wildfires overwhelmed the West Coast in September, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington followed standard protocol and asked President Trump to declare a major disaster. That frees up millions in federal aid for everything from temporary housing to cleanup to rebuilding infrastructure. Well, after some politicking and tweeting - these are blue states, after all - California and Oregon's major disaster declarations were mostly quickly approved.
SCOTT HOKONSON: Oregon heard nine days after their fire, and their fire was on the same day as ours, September 7, 2020.
SIEGLER: Scott Hokonson says it's been 71 days since Washington asked the president for its disaster declaration. On Labor Day, a wind-driven range fire destroyed approximately 80% of homes in Malden, Wash., including Hokonson's. He's on the town council and is trying to lead its recovery task force. The fires were worse overall in California and Oregon. Thankfully, nobody died in Malden, but most of its some 300 residents were uninsured and already living on the economic margins.
HOKONSON: But to see this on the news reports that, you know, the FEMA trailers are rolling in to help some people when we're in exactly the same condition, it just makes you wonder, even in the best of times, where are we at? Did we get forgotten?
SIEGLER: So fire survivors are left only to speculate. Is this politics, bureaucracy, just incompetence? In a brief email, a FEMA spokesperson told NPR only that the administration is still reviewing Washington's request. Waiting this long and not even getting denied aid is extremely unusual.
CAROLYN KOUSKY: Yeah, I've never heard of this happening before.
SIEGLER: Carolyn Kousky runs the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
KOUSKY: Delays create a lot of extra costs for families, for the community. And the longer it takes, the more those costs can ripple and create problems.
SIEGLER: Problems like delays in getting people into basic temporary housing or just cleaning up the town. And the longer Malden is in limbo, Kousky says, the harder it gets to try to rebuild smarter and more resilient against the next seemingly inevitable wildfire. This is what Scott Hokonson, the town councilman, has been trying to push, even with so many people, including himself, in crisis right now.
HOKONSON: We are hampered in how much we can move forward, in which direction we can go until we hear from FEMA.
SIEGLER: Hokonson says the mayor recently resigned. So did the city clerk. And there are real worries Malden won't rebuild and may empty out. He's trying to stay upbeat.
HOKONSON: And I chuckle because it's gotten to the point where it's not funny that way. It's just you have to laugh or else you'll cry.
SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW JACKSON'S "PUT THE LOVE IN IT")
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