President Donald Trump has threatened to stop sending federal money to the state of California for wildfire recovery, a move that Catholic aid workers say could dramatically impact thousands of California families trying to rebuild their lives.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump wrote in a tweet Wednesday.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to send no more money.”
The fire season in California in 2018 was the state’s worst on record, with thousands of structures destroyed and nearly 90 lives lost. An unusually dry autumn contributed to the severity of the fire season.
About 6,650 people in California have successfully applied for FEMA assistance to the tune of nearly $50 million in aid, according to the latest available numbers from FEMA. That assistance can be used for essential home repairs and other necessities not covered by insurance.
It’s not yet clear whether Trump has the legal authority to order FEMA directly to cut funding for California, but the Sacramento Bee reports that the president does have to power to refuse to declare a state of disaster in California during or after future fires.
The Washington Post reportedly reached out to FEMA for comment, but received only an automated reply saying the agency is unable to respond to general press inquiries due to the partial government shutdown. The agency has said that individuals can still apply for aid while the government is shut down.
California’s newly-elected governor has called on the Trump administration to double federal funding to manage the state’s forests.
Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Diocese of Sacramento, told CNA that though he suspects the president's words were a political message directed at California's new governor, the impact of defunding FEMA completely could be devastating.
"It's sad that whatever politics are involved here are being directed at these families that really need our care, concern, and our help in order to rebuild," Eckery told CNA.
"You take an emergency that affects thousands and thousands of families in northern California, billions of dollars in property damage, that began on federal land with the possible involvement of a public utility, and then try and say, 'No, this is all about California forest management processes’...I'm kind of dumbfounded," he said.
"In terms of toying with people's livelihoods and their concern about rebuilding, it becomes even more strange when you realize that this is a community that is probably one of the few places in California where a majority of voters supported President Trump."
Eckery explained that in the case of a natural disaster, for the most part the state has the primary responsibility for operations along with their partners in local government. FEMA can then underwrite grants and low-interest loans to help provide aid from outside the state; for example, if a state needs large amounts of concrete for levies, not all of which can be sourced in-state.
If Trump were actually to carry out his threat to defund FEMA, thousands of families trying to rebuild that would be affected, he warned.
The Sacramento diocese is making schooling available for free for 30-40 students affected by the fire, Eckery said, and Catholic Charities is engaged in case management to match families with resources so they can do their own rebuilding.
"We've moved from the emergency stage to the recovery stage," he said.
"People need to understand that even though the Camp Fire is out of the day-to-day headlines, it still burned down a community of 35,000 people. And so that is a lot of hurt, and those people need and deserve our help."
Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa, whose district includes much of northeastern California, wrote in a press release that he expects the president to keep his promise to help victims of the fires.
“Although I share the President’s great frustration with California’s choking regulations from the stranglehold environmental groups have on the state, as well as the inaction on federal lands up until this Administration...threats to FEMA funding are not helpful and will not solve the longer term forest management regulatory problems,” he wrote.
“These are American citizens who require our help.”