WASHINGTON — President Clinton declared Southern California a disaster area Thursday as federal agencies began efforts to help contain the area's wildfires and to assist with relief costs.
"Along with all Americans, my heart goes out to the people across Southern California who've lost their homes, their possessions," Clinton said at a morning press conference. "We will offer what we can to help fight the fires, to meet the needs of the victims, to stand with the people who are already doing so much."
Within hours of the declaration, federal agencies had mobilized about 2,000 firefighters from the Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to aid in quelling the blazes, including 160 American Indian firefighters flown in from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, federal officials said.
The government's interagency fire center in Boise, Ida., flew in 15 helicopters, four firefighting planes and 17 aerial tankers. In addition, the Defense Department made available six C-130 cargo planes to help ferry firefighters, as well as helicopters and military engineers with bulldozers to assist in clearing firebreaks.
The Forest Service is sending 15 helicopters and 32 aircraft, including 26 aerial tankers.
"You really have to get a lot of resources on it early and contain it," said White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty, who convened a White House meeting in the afternoon to coordinate federal assistance. "If you get a little break from Mother Nature, we've now got the firefighters on the ground."
The disaster declaration opens the way for federal funds to help in relief and rebuilding efforts in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Diego counties. A Federal Emergency Management Agency office in Pasadena, opened after last year's riots, will coordinate federal disaster relief efforts, FEMA officials said.
After the last major natural disaster in California--the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989--FEMA was widely criticized for being slow to respond to aid requests and for being overly bureaucratic in its efforts. Similar criticism hit the agency after the 1992 hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana.
Recalling those public relations disasters, the Administration has made an effort to improve FEMA. Public response after the Midwest floods this summer appears to have been significantly more positive. In addition, Clinton has tried to coordinate federal disaster relief efforts to reduce interagency problems--designating McLarty to oversee the fire relief effort.
FEMA Director James Lee Witt flew to Los Angeles with the state's two senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Thursday to coordinate federal relief efforts. He will be joined in the next two days by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose agency includes the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, whose agency includes the Forest Service.
Clinton is not likely to visit the area himself, McLarty said. "The last thing we want to do is divert any resources with a trip," he said.
Federal officials do not yet have any estimate of disaster costs but expect they can be handled within the existing federal budget, McLarty said. FEMA received a special additional appropriation early this fall to replenish funds drained by the Midwest flood relief effort, which should be enough to cover the costs of fire relief.
FEMA aid includes grants to help with rent for temporary housing and for repairs, as well as low-interest loans to replace uninsured property, to rebuild small businesses and to replace damaged public facilities. Many of the programs, however, have limits on the amounts they cover. In the past, those limits have been criticized for being too low to handle disasters in high-cost areas like Southern California.
People seeking federal disaster relief can apply through a toll-free FEMA number--(800) 462-9029. The phone lines will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, according to FEMA regional director Frank Kishton.
Federal disaster aid fits into several different categories: For short-term emergency relief, FEMA can offer temporary rental payments for up to 18 months for those whose houses are destroyed.
The agency can also offer grants for "minimal repairs" to make houses habitable, special unemployment payments for people not covered by other unemployment programs and grants of up to about $12,000 for "serious disaster-related needs" not covered by other programs.
For rebuilding, the government has programs that provide loans with interest rates of 4% to 8% to cover uninsured private and business property but only up to $100,000 for primary residences and $500,000 for businesses. A separate loan fund can provide aid up to $500,000 to help small businesses with disaster-related cash-flow problems.
Local governments can seek federal help to cover up to 75% of the costs of repairing schools, roads, bridges, recreational areas and other public facilities.