Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Texas wildfire claims

Gov. Rick Perry held a press conference on wildfires in the Austin area Sept. 5, 2011 (Austin American-Statesman video).

As wildfires ravaged parts of Texas, Gov. Rick Perry said at a Sept. 5, 2011, press conference that authorities would be asking the federal government to issue a disaster declaration.

Earlier this year, PolitiFact Texas looked into contrasting claims about the state’s initially unsuccessful request for a federal disaster declaration to deal with other wildfires.
   
Some background: In an April letter to Obama, Perry requested a "major disaster declaration" as a result of wildfires that were burning through the state. The request sought federal aid to reimburse up to 75 percent of firefighting costs already expended and to help the state fight fires in 252 of the state’s 254 counties, including Travis.
   
On May 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request after concluding that recovery needs did not exceed what state and local governments could handle, according to a May 4 Fort Worth Star-Telegram news article.

On May 10, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, jumped on a reporter’s question about whether the administration’s denial of a disaster declaration for Texas was politically motivated.

Carney told reporters: "This administration has been extremely responsive to the state of Texas’ requests for wildfire management assisting grants — 25 of them at last count," he said. "All that have been requested had been, as far as I know it, have been provided."

We rated this Mostly True, concluding that Carney’s statement accurately summed up the Obama administration’s approval of fire-fighting grants for Texas, but it glossed over its denial of the disaster declaration, which could have covered more counties and provided retroactive assistance.

During a May 12 interview with The Texas Tribune, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples touched on what was still a denial by the federal government of the general disaster declaration about the wildfires. Staples said: "It’s just unconscionable that FEMA and this administration is denying our request for a general disaster declaration. And to put it in context, just in June of 2009, the same administration approved the type of declaration request that we’re asking, when nine counties out of the 77 in Oklahoma burned for about three days. We’ve had wildfires that have been out of control for two weeks."

We found Staples’ claim Mostly True. Staples correctly said the Obama administration had denied Texas’ request for a disaster declaration in response to long-burning wildfires: Also, the administration had approved a similar disaster declaration request from Oklahoma in 2009, in response to wildfires that burned for only a few days.
   
Yet Staples’ statement left out a crucial relevant fact. FEMA had not denied federal aid for the 2011 Texas wildfires; it had approved the fire-fighting grants adding up to $23 million — far more than Oklahoma’s approximate $3 million in disaster aid.

Postscript: In July 2011, President Barack Obama reversed course, signing a general disaster declaration allowing local governments in 45 counties to seek federal help to pay for debris removal and emergency measures taken to save lives and protect property and public health due to the spring wildfires, the Associated Press reported.