President Barack Obama has declared Washington, D.C. a major disaster zone, but it’s not because of the red ink flooding from his pen. It’s not due to the president’s collapsing approval ratings. And it has nothing to do with the mud-slides and verbal infernos that he has loosed on his political rivals.
Obama declared D.C. a disaster zone Tuesday because of the August 23 earthquake that damaged some pinnacles and a gargoyle on an Episcopal cathedral, frightened some zoo animals, dropped some bricks into an alleyway alongside Ecuador’s embassy, and cracked the stones near the top of the Washington Monument.
The epicenter of the earthquake was in the town of Mineral, Va. But the town’s application for disaster aid was rejected by the federal government, even though the nearby high school and elementary school are damaged and unusable, said Bernice Wilson Kube, Mineral’s vice-mayor.
Following an appeal by Gov. Bob McDonnell, the feds changed their mind on Friday, she said. On Tuesday, officials appeared to distribute applications for aid, she said.
Pending repair of the local schools, kids are being taught in trailers three days per week, she said.
Virginia suffered roughly $150 million in uninsured damage from the earthquake, mostly due to damaged buildings.
Washington D.C., however, was granted the lucrative status of “major disaster,” according to a White House email sent Tuesday afternoon.
“The President today declared a major disaster exists in the District of Columbia and ordered Federal aid to supplement the District of Columbia recovery efforts in the area affected by an earthquake during the period of Aug. 23-28, 2011,” read the message.
That declaration ensures the nation’s taxpayers are on the hook for three-quarters of whatever damages the local government can attribute to the earthquake. “There is no funding estimate that I can provide you with,” said Niki Edwards, a FEMA manager. The costs will be determined after negotiations with local officials, she said.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the declaration allows the federal government to provide “payment of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs for repairing or replacing damaged public facilities, such as roads, bridges, utilities, buildings, schools, recreational areas and similar publicly owned property, as well as certain private non-profit organizations engaged in community service activities.”
The disaster status also allows the local government — in this case, the city of Washington — to charge the feds for “payment of not more than 75 percent of the approved costs for hazard mitigation projects undertaken by the District of Columbia to prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property from natural or technological disasters.”
The Washington Monument is owned by the Department of the Interior, and it repair will be paid by the federal taxpayers. However, the disaster declaration allow the repairs to be funded from the disaster funds annually appropriated by Congress. Without the disaster funds, the money would have to paid from the department’s annual budget.
Public concerns about the efficiency of the spending won’t find receptive ears at the White House. It’s the D.C. government that will be responsible for managing the contracts.