Wyden talks about wildfires and pandemic aid
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he and others pressed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get going on debris cleanup from the Labor Day wildfires across Oregon.
Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio — a Democrat from Springfield and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — toured several wildfire sites the weekend of Oct. 3 and 4 with FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor.
"We led this effort to make sure we get in motion immediately a way to deal with this debris," Wyden said in an interview with Pamplin Media Group. "If we do not deal with it, we are inviting a second disaster. As Oregonians, we know the rains are coming, we know this hazardous debris is piling up next to the rivers and we know people want to rebuild. We need some certainty.
"If we do not get local communities going on cleaning up that debris, what is going to happen is that you are going to have rainstorms washing the debris into our rivers all over Oregon."
He said the debris contains metals and other toxic materials that would endanger the quality of drinking water for cities such as Eugene and Salem. The Holiday Farm fire burned in the McKenzie River watershed east of Eugene, and the Beachie Creek fire burned in the North Santiam River watershed east of Salem. The Riverside fire affected the Clackamas River watershed southeast of Portland.
They are among seven major wildfires that the Oregon Department of Forestry is still fighting. All are at some stage of containment.
Under normal FEMA procedures, communities are reimbursed for cleanup work, although reimbursement can take a long time.
On a visit to some of the same Oregon wildfire sites the previous weekend, Wyden and Merkley pressed a FEMA regional official on two other priorities for recovery: Temporary housing and access to broadband communications. Wyden was particularly insistent on FEMA housing trailers. The official conceded the nearest were stored in Tracy, Calif., outside Stockton.
"I would like to think that the fact I was pressing them led at least to the beginning of an expanded effort," Wyden said.
FEMA has enrolled people for individual assistance, including help for housing and other expenses and disaster unemployment payments. However, only about 150 people in the eight counties designated by FEMA — including Clackamas and Marion counties — have applied for the special unemployment benefits.
David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, said the small number was not a surprise.
"Most people impacted by the fires are probably eligible for benefits under one of the other programs," he told reporters during a weekly conference call. "That program is a safety net of last resort that is there only if people cannot get any of the other benefits."
Gerstenfeld said his agency is giving priority to claims filed by people in any community affected by the wildfires at evacuation level 3, which calls for an immediate departure.
During the call, Gerstenfeld said his agency has paid close to $5 billion in benefits from March 15 through Oct. 3. Regular unemployment claims, drawn from the state trust fund that employers pay into, amounted to $1.6 billion — but the extra $600-per-week benefits, which ran from March through July 25 under the federal CARES Act, totaled $2.9 billion.
The agency has received 581,000 claims for regular unemployment benefits and more than 100,000 claims for federal benefits for newly eligible self-employed and gig workers.
No more relief
Wyden got the extra $600-per-week payments and the expanded eligibility into the CARES Act.
"Even with all the problems at the Oregon Employment Department has had, the $600 has made a big difference," Wyden said. "People still got the extra money and that helped the Oregon economy. It made it possible for them to pay their bills."
The $2.9 billion accounted for a big chunk of the estimated $7 billion that the CARES Act provided to individuals in Oregon. State economists said Sept. 23 that individual aid, plus $7 billion in various forms of aid to businesses, helped keep the economy afloat and boost state tax collections despite a sharp increase in unemployment as a result of business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Wyden said he agrees with Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, that more aid is needed to stimulate an economy that is now lagging without those dollars. He said he is puzzled by President Donald Trump's Twitter pronouncement of suspending talks with Congress on a follow-up aid plan to the CARES Act. Trump then said he's open to Congress approving pieces such as aid to airlines and a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks, but not to other aid proposed in the HEROES Act passed by the Democratic-led House.
Wyden took part Oct. 7 in a virtual hearing of a Senate finance subcommittee from his home in Southeast Portland. He is the top Democrat on the full Finance Committee, which writes tax legislation.
"With all of these people hurting, you would think this administration with three weeks to go (before the election) would want to step up and actually help people," Wyden said.
"I don't see how that (suspension) makes sense for someone looking at election in a few weeks. It just defies common sense."
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