Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Politics

President Obama rejects Gov. Rick Scott's plea for federal disaster declaration from Tampa Bay flooding

TALLAHASSEE — President Barack Obama on Thursday rejected Florida Gov. Rick Scott's request for a federal disaster declaration for Tampa Bay's August flooding, adding another chapter in an often antagonistic relationship between the two that dates back to before Scott took office.

Scott has repeatedly sued the Obama administration over veterans programs and federal hospital funding programs while challenging the Affordable Care Act, which Scott spent millions of dollars of his own money to fight in television commercials even before he ran for governor.

Now, for at least the fourth time in less than three years, Scott is the recipient of a rejection letter for a disaster declaration from the Obama administration. Since 2004, governors have received disaster declarations sought from the federal government more than 85 percent of the time. But Scott has suffered a 50 percent rejection rate since taking office in 2011.

"It's disappointing that the Obama administration denied our request for federal assistance for those impacted by recent floods in the Tampa and west-central Florida areas," said Jackie Schutz, Scott's communications director.

In denying Scott's latest request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided damage from the storms and subsequent flooding was not enough to be beyond the capabilities of the state and local governments. FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate, who advises the president on disaster declarations, said in a letter to Scott on Thursday that damage from the storms that saturated the area from July 25 to Aug. 3 was "not of such severity and magnitude" that state and local officials cannot handle it with their current resources — a standard phrase used in past disaster declaration denials.

Scott told Obama in a plea for aid on Aug. 25 that the bay area suffered $7.5 million in economic disruption and was facing $2.2 million in costs for temporary housing and home repairs. Nearly 1,100 homes were damaged by the storms, according to state damage assessments. More than 600 of those were in Pasco County, which suffered "major" damage to at least 100 homes. County and state money has helped deal with the recovery, but county leaders have said they need more aid.

A federal disaster declaration would have triggered hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured-property losses, and other help for individuals and business owners affected by the storms.

The denial letter adds to a growing collection Scott has from Fugate, who was Florida's disaster chief under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Three times in 2012, FEMA rejected Scott's requests for federal assistance for two hurricanes and a flooding incident near Pensacola. Later, Scott's request for help for damage sustained in South Florida from Hurricane Isaac was approved after an appeal confirmed additional damage.

Besides the appeal on Isaac, Obama has also approved three other Florida disaster declarations since 2011, most recently in May 2014 for severe storms and flooding that besieged the Pensacola area.

While rare, denial of a governor's disaster declaration request is not unheard of. Earlier this year, Obama rejected a disaster declaration from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, who said bird flu was affecting the state's farming community. It's not just Republican governors getting rebuffed. Last year, Obama initially denied a disaster declaration from Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, after his state was hit by Tropical Storm Iselle. It was later granted on an appeal. Similarly, Obama rejected a request from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, after wildfires ravaged central Washington last year.

From 2004 to 2011, government records show 86 percent of disaster requests made by governors were approved. About 14 percent were rejected, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That report also showed governors are increasingly requesting federal assistance for storms. Prior to 1995, governors never requested more than 50 disaster declarations in a year. Now the federal government is approving more than 60 a year, with a record high of 98 in 2011.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Safety Harbor Republican, said Fugate told his office Wednesday that Florida still had other financial resources it could use to take care of families affected by the flooding, without additional federal help. Specifically, Fugate noted that federal community block grant money given to the state could be redirected to affected areas, according to Bilirakis and his staff.

"I am very disappointed the administration has denied the governor's request for assistance for Florida flood victims," said Bilirakis, whose 12th congressional district includes all of Pasco County, the hardest hit of five counties that would have been covered by the disaster declaration.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, took it a step further, demanding in a letter to Fugate on Thursday that FEMA reverse its decision.

Scott requested the declaration on Aug. 25, three weeks after the bulk of the rains that flooded the Tampa Bay area had subsided. Scott said it took time to thoroughly assess damage in five counties: Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Taylor and Dixie.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Clearwater Republican, acknowledged a history of bad blood between Scott and Obama, and said he only hopes that did not affect the administration's decision to reject Florida's latest request.

"The bottom line is the president made the wrong decision," Jolly said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

Correction: The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated disaster proclamation rejections. An earlier version of this story online gave an incorrect name for the agency.

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