President issues major disaster declaration, county readies for next storm

County begins repairs while gearing up for next round of storms; federal funding expected to reimburse some costs
PA Process Chart in 4 Easy Steps Sep08_0001.jpg

President Donald Trump issued a major disaster declaration Feb. 14 for the State of California, triggering the release of federal funds to help communities such as San Benito County recover from the severe winter storms, flooding, and mudslides that occurred during the period of Jan. 3-12.

According to a Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) alert, all areas in the state of California are eligible for assistance under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The declaration affects San Benito and 33 other counties.

Kevin O’Neill, San Benito County deputy director of the Office of Emergency Services (OES), said on Feb. 15 that costs so far are divided in two ways: money allocated and money spent.

“At this point, the bare minimum is a couple hundred thousand dollars spent,” he said. “We’ve allocated about $300,000 more. A lot of it does not include any of the major road repairs, potential bridge repairs that we may have to do.”

O’Neill said the $300,000 is slated to pay contractors to repair the levee, clearing portions of Pacheco Creek, and filling in pot holes and sink holes. He said there are two major breaks in the levee and a third, where the top of the levee was sheared off.

“It’s just been allocated and parts of the project have not been done yet,” he said. “Everything has been put on hold because the last storm caught up with us real quick.”

County Supervisor Mark Medina commented Feb. 15 that he is in the process of organizing a town hall meeting within two weeks to include Kathleen Lee, chief of staff for Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel), and Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas).  

“We need to see what we can do for our residents to make this FEMA program work,” Medina said. “It’s about educating everyone on the process and the timing.”

As part of the recovery effort, FEMA provides relief through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to states and local governments to implement long-term hazard mitigation measures. FEMA can fund up to 75 percent of the eligible costs of each project. Total federal funding under the current program is based on a sliding scale of the estimated grants for individual assistance programs and public assistance projects.

States may choose to develop an Enhanced State Mitigation Plan in order to receive an increased amount of up to 20 percent for HMGP funding. Eligible applicants are state and local governments, Native American tribes, and certain nonprofit organizations. Individual homeowners and businesses may not apply directly to the program; however, a community may apply on behalf of homeowners and businesses.

The following is a summary of key aspects of the program roles that apply to San Benito County applicants, and FEMA:

As soon as practicable after the declaration, the grantee (the state), assisted by FEMA, conducts the applicant briefings for state, local and private nonprofit officials to inform them of the assistance available and how to apply for it. A request for public assistance must be filed with the state within 30 days after the area is designated eligible for assistance. Following the applicant's briefing, a kickoff meeting is conducted where damages will be discussed, needs assessed, and a plan of action put in place. A combined federal/state/tribal/local team proceeds with project formulation, which is the process of documenting the eligible facility, the eligible work, and the eligible cost for fixing the damages to every public or PNP facility identified by state, tribal, or local representatives. The team prepares a project worksheet for each project.

Project categories are:

Category A: Debris removal
Category B: Emergency protective measures
Category C: Roads and bridges
Category D: Water control facilities
Category E: Public buildings and contents
Category F: Public utilities
Category G: Parks, recreational, and others.

O’Neill said he expected a third to half inch of rain over the next few days and that the county has been staging thousands of sandbags on the corner of Lovers Lane and Shore Road, which has been impacted by flooding this winter.

“We will probably pre-stage at a limited degree,” he said. “The people who were in the flooded area are pretty much out of there. We will monitor the situation and see what happens. The creek is not predicted to rise nearly as high as it has in the past, but we’re keeping a close eye on it. It probably won’t rise significantly until Friday.”

He said there will be a kick-off meeting with FEMA to discuss the various projects and possible funding, but a date has not been determined yet. While requests for assistance are supposed to be submitted within 30 days after the area is designated eligible for assistance, O’Neill said that while the county has to have a basic list of projects, it could still be possible to submit other projects after that date.

O’Neill told the board of supervisors at the Feb. 7 meeting that the county had contracted with Don Chapin Company for $150,000 to the levee (this was before the other breaks). Granite Construction would be paid $250,000 to clear debris from the Pacheco Creek. Graniterock will get $75,000 to repair potholes on Lovers Lane and San Felipe Road, as well as Southside Road. The sinkhole on San Felipe Road, by itself, will cost $33,000 to repair, said O'Neill, noting that a rough estimate of costs involving county emergency personnel was about $50,000.

He also told the supervisors that, so far, five homes had been red-tagged, three of which were un-permitted structures, and seven were yellow-tagged. A red-tagged structure has been severely damaged to the degree that the structure is too dangerous to inhabit. A yellow-tagged building has been moderately damaged to the degree that its habitability is limited.

“People have suffered at least $311,500 in damages to uninsured property,” O'Neill said. “That’s from only 15 people who responded. There are about 50 people who were impacted by this, so these numbers can grow significantly.


John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]