Newsom, Congress push Biden to declare a major disaster in California following storms

California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a visit to storm-ravaged Capitola Village
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during his Tuesday visit to storm-ravaged Capitola Village.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If Santa Cruz County and the rest of the Central Coast are going to receive the money needed to recover after the winter storms, President Joe Biden will need to formally declare a major disaster in California. On Thursday, the powers that be turned up the heat to ensure that happens.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom toured the Santa Cruz County coastline Tuesday with a media gaggle in tow. Rep. Jimmy Panetta will touch down Friday to assess storm damage throughout the county. Vice President Kamala Harris personally called Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley to assure him the federal government and Biden administration stand ready to help, Keeley says. Photos and stories of the damage sustained in Santa Cruz County have been plastered across national and international news outlets for almost two weeks.

Since the start of 2023, the eyes of the nation have been on Santa Cruz and the damage it has incurred. However, the stage of disasters where a parade of media outlets and political camaraderie sweep through the region with the storms is over, Keeley says. Now, the county, its cities and the state must move on to recovery, a stage marked by political jostling, paperwork and convincing the federal government that, yes, the damage really was this bad.

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That crucial act of convincing hit a new level Thursday when Newsom sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking him to hurry up in declaring a major disaster for California. Panetta, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the rest of California’s congressional delegation followed up with a letter urging Biden to grant Newsom’s request. A major disaster declaration is a formal process that acknowledges the state and its localities suffered damage that requires resources beyond what those more local levels of governments are able to provide. It is crucial in sending federal aid to disaster areas.

“Due to the sustained force and longevity of this atmospheric river event, there are multiple cumulative and compounding effects, which have already strained and overwhelmed local, tribal, and state resources,” Newsom’s letter reads.

After the cities and Santa Cruz County declared local emergencies, and the state declared its own statewide emergency, the Biden administration declared a federal emergency for California. The impact of an emergency declaration for localities, however, is much different than a major disaster declaration.

A federal emergency declaration is a lower threshold that allows for a quicker, though lighter, lift for the federal government. The president can declare an emergency when it’s clear that a state needs an assist from the federal government to respond to the threat of catastrophe. During emergencies, the National Guard or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are often tapped to come in and help. Under emergency declarations, the federal government can provide up to $5 million of assistance before Congress needs to get involved.

A major disaster declaration, however, opens an entirely new menu of resources. In conversations with Keeley, state Sen. John Laird and representatives from Panetta’s office, such action from Biden appears inevitable.

The major disaster declaration requested by Newsom on Thursday — such measures can be requested only by a state’s governor — would unlock a well of federal assistance for public infrastructure and individuals affected by the storm.

Newsom requested that the federal government cover 100% of the cost for debris removal and emergency protective measures, such as evacuating residents and standing up shelters, for the first 90 days of cleanup. After 90 days, Newsom wants the federal government to cover 90% of those costs. Newsom also requested help for individual homeowners across the state whose properties were flooded, including at least 140 homeowners in Santa Cruz County.

Laird says Newsom’s request is the first step to opening the door to significant help through disaster recovery.

“Disaster declarations only get you halfway there,” Laird said. “There is always some political jostling that needs to go on, especially in making certain justifications for the assistance. A lot of times, it depends on how you apply and what the need is.”

Keeley, who was an aide to county supervisor Joe Cucchiara during the 1982 floods and a county supervisor himself at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, says once a major disaster declaration is made, the money to finance the recovery will come quickly. However, he says localities and the federal government will likely be debating for years whether the local jurisdictions need to pay the federal government back.

“We’re getting ready to enter the part that isn’t any fun,” Keeley said. “To use a polite phrase, the federal government uses an ‘abundance of caution’ before spending federal dollars.”

Keeley said for individual assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will likely offer low-interest loans to residents and businesses. However, any precise financial needs from cities, the county and homeowners are still a ways out, especially since Santa Cruz County is still monitoring yet another atmospheric river forecast to hit the region this weekend.


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