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County's share of statewide request was $670K for snow storm damage

COLUMBIA COUNTY ROADS DEPARTMENT PHOTO - A truck equipped with a plow makes its way along roads in Columbia County after the region got roughly a foot of snow in January. The county estimated about $670,000 worth of damage from the snow storm.Federal disaster money for an Oregon winter snow storm that crippled Columbia County was denied by the federal government.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in January after more than a foot of snow pummeled several other areas throughout the state in consecutive winter storms, followed by freezing rain.

Columbia County's damage was estimated to be $670,000, including the $241,000 in costs incurred by utility districts in the county to address outages, downed power lines and other repairs.

Columbia River People's Utility District estimated its share of costs from the storm was $43,000, still less than a massive wind storm that hit the PUD in late 2015.

Brown later requested disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on behalf of 10 counties, including Columbia.

That request was denied by FEMA in a letter sent to the governor earlier this month.

In the request for funds, Brown noted "severe winter storms, snowstorms, flooding, landslides and mudslides" that hit Oregon from Jan. 7 to 20.

The weather left roads covered in ice. As most roads and highways became impassable without chains, many public transit bus routes were canceled, schools shut down for more than a week, and utility districts were tapped with outages and equipment repairs, while cities and counties saw their public works departments in full force. Weather.com categorized January's storm as one of the most severe on record since the 1940s.

Still, it wasn't enough to trigger relief money from FEMA.

"Based on our review of all the information available, it has been determined that the damage from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments," the letter from FEMA states.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley was quick to lambaste Pres. Donald Trump over the FEMA rejection, questioning the motives behind the denial, which the president typically signs off on.

"I am deeply disappointed that President Trump is refusing to extend federal help to Oregon after major winter storm damage this year," Merkley said in a statement released by his office on Monday. "The denial of a request with such high and demonstrated damages is unusual, and raises questions about how federal disaster response programs will be run under President Trump."

But FEMA's denial may not be that unusual.

Steve Pegram, director of Columbia County's Office of Emergency Management, said the federal agency often turns down requests.

"You'd be foolish not to ask for a declaration," Pegram noted of the state's circumstances and costs, but said in his experience, FEMA "turns declarations down all the time."

"It's not uncommon," Pegram said. He suspects it has less to do with Trump and the decision was likely made solely based on FEMA's recommendation to the president. Such recommendations are rarely, if ever, rejected by the commander in chief, he said.

"He would have to consciously override each one," Pegram said of the FEMA recommendations the president reviews before signing off on.

Oregon plans to appeal FEMA's decision to deny funds to the state.

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