SALEM, Ore. -- When flood waters swept through the little town of Vernonia, Aldie Howard had just been appointed Planning Director. But the city administrator was out of state and somebody had to be in charge. That somebody turned out to be Howard.
"My learning curve was straight up," said Howard. Right after the flood, things were "chaotic."? After the disaster declaration, "things really started buzzing."
Soon the blue shirts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff started showing up.
One FEMA employee, Public Assistance Coordinator Jack Manicke, even camped out in Howard's office. Beginning in early January, Manicke spent half days in Vernonia, sitting directly across from the city administrator.
Public assistance (PA) refers to FEMA's financial assistance to public entities ? the state, cities, tribal governments and private nonprofit agencies that perform essential services. PA monies can pay 75 percent of the city's costs of responding to the disaster and cleaning up and repairing city structures afterwards.
Typically PA staff meet with an applicant, explain the process, and then check in by phone once or twice a week. But Manicke was there every day to answer Howard's questions about the PA program and write grants to help the city restore its damaged infrastructure.
The list was long. The city's sewage treatment plant was flooded; the sewage lagoons were lined with silt; some roads were heavily damaged; debris had to be removed throughout the flooded area; city parks needed repairs; and there were overtime costs for emergency responders.
Working side-by-side with the city administrator, Manicke wrote grants that described the damage, outlined the scope of work and estimated the cost of repairs. When totaled, the city's expenses for this disaster will come to more than $825,000.
Howard was new to city government and totally unfamiliar with FEMA or the public assistance program. Manicke helped him understand what costs the federal government could reimburse. Before the city entered into contracts for repair work, for example, Manicke explained the federal requirement of obtaining three written estimates.
"Without Jack we would be dead meat," said Howard.
Manicke became the constant in an ever-changing sea of FEMA employees in Vernonia. Sometimes Howard had questions about other FEMA programs such as individual assistance. Manicke was able to direct Howard to the best person to answer the questions. If major problems arose, Manicke could even alert the federal coordinating officer.?
By helping the city administrator understand FEMA programs, Manicke was able to manage the city's expectations. He helped Howard understand PA guidelines, the various categories of work, and the eligible costs. Most importantly, through their close collaboration, two men developed a strong bond and mutual respect.
Three key questions for a FEMA Public Assistance Inspector
What is the best thing that local officials can do to prepare for a visit by FEMA?
Keep careful records and photograph all damaged facilities.
What's the biggest challenge to working with a community like Vernonia?
The disaster damages to Vernonia have been really difficult on everyone. Public health and safety are big issues during the disaster event. We have to make sure that each damaged site is visited, soon after the disaster so that nothing is overlooked or missed. Considering the severity of the December flooding, it's really impressive that everyone has been really welcoming and the hospitality's been terrific.
How long does it take for cities, counties, eligible utilities and Tribes to get reimbursed for disaster costs?...