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Wheels of disaster aid grind slowly

Jackson County already suffered the worst fire in its history. Now, apparently, we have to bicker with the federal government to get the help we need.

President Trump declared a major disaster for the state of Oregon last week. But that’s not the end of the story. The Federal Emergency Management Agency defines different categories of assistance, and initially, Oregon was placed in a “Category B” level of assistance — which covers the costs of what are called “emergency protective measures” such as search and rescue, evacuations and emergency repairs. Category A pays for debris removal. That’s the biggest obstacle to starting the rebuilding process in areas of Talent and Phoenix that were leveled by the Almeda fire.

Because the ash and other debris left by the fires is contaminated with asbestos and other toxic substances, it can’t just be scooped up and hauled to the dump — as some residents have discovered when they were turned away at local landfills. In fact, officials are urging residents not to attempt to clean up their properties on their own.

The cost of debris removal alone is staggering, officials say — as much as $170 million at approximately $70,000 for each house destroyed in the fire. And that doesn’t count damage to city-owned buildings and other property. Phoenix estimates at least $1 million in damage to water meters, a playground and a city-owned house.

That total for just one city easily exceeds Jackson County’s threshold of $800,000 in damage to public infrastructure required by FEMA to qualify for an additional category, according to the state Office of Emergency Management. New damage assessments will be prepared starting Monday.

It should go without saying that Jackson County needs the maximum level of assistance available to begin to recover from this disaster. But that doesn’t satisfy federal bean counters who insist that all the paperwork must be in order.

The frustrating part is the delay. It’s been nearly three weeks since the fire, and local governments still don’t know when —and how much — federal assistance will be approved so work can begin.

Temporary housing is still in the talking stage as well — where to put it, whether FEMA trailers will be used or some other type of shelter.

A meeting of local builders, bankers and government representatives last week to discuss housing options was encouraging, but again, it will take time. Land must be identified, utilities installed and trailers or recreational vehicles brought in.

Time is the enemy in more ways than one. Construction workers were already in short supply before the disaster hit. If those who lost homes in the fire are forced to leave the area, it will make it that much harder to rebuild what was lost.

In the short term, convincing federal officials to provide the maximum available assistance must be priority No. 1.

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