Courtesy California Department of Water Resources
OROVILLE, Calif. — The massive relief effort underway for victims of Hurricane Harvey won’t jeopardize funding to rebuild the Oroville Dam, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official told the Capital Press.
While the cost of cleaning up after Harvey’s flood waters in Texas and Louisiana has been estimated to be in the billions, relief for damage from California’s storms last winter is treated as separate, said Victor Inge, a FEMA external affairs officer for the West Coast region.
“In the immediate sense, nothing has changed here,” said Inge, a member of an incident management team sent to California in February. “We’re proceeding as business as usual.”
FEMA did send some relief workers from California to the Gulf Coast to help while “at the same time we retained enough staff so that it would not affect the operation here and enough staff that we’re poised for anything that can happen,” Inge said.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., whose district includes the Lake Oroville area, said he’s received similar assurances from FEMA officials.
“We’ve just met with FEMA yesterday and it’s an ongoing issue but I think (it) is being handled OK for now,” LaMalfa said Aug. 30 in a message via Facebook.
State Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon said it’s “our understanding as well” that Oroville funding won’t be affected by Harvey.
The assurances come as crews are in the midst of a $275.4 million repair and reconstruction project at the Oroville Dam, whose spillways nearly failed in February. Spillway ruptures led to the two-day evacuation of about 188,000 area residents and threatened a large portion of the Eastern Sacramento Valley’s $1.5 billion agriculture industry, including rice and tree crops and several processors along the Highway 99 corridor between Chico and Yuba City.
While the dam’s refurbishment will take several years to complete, work on the main spillway recently passed the midway point for this summer and is on track to be finished by Nov. 1, officials said.
The ongoing construction has complicated water allocations by the State Water Project, for which Lake Oroville is the main reservoir. The project irrigates more than 600,000 acres of Central Valley farmland and serves 20 million customers in the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California.
So far, FEMA has allocated $43 million in relief for California, which includes Oroville and numerous other repairs of roads, bridges and other facilities throughout the state that were damaged by last winter’s heavy storms and flooding, Inge said.
President Donald Trump has committed up to $274 million for the Oroville project, but the grants will come in phases as work proceeds, LaMalfa noted. The federal commitments came before the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, creating a flood zone the size of Lake Michigan and causing one of the most expensive natural disasters in American history.
Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather, believes Harvey will end up being costlier than hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined. He predicts the disaster will cause a $190 billion hit to the American economy, or 1 percent of the total gross domestic product.
“The disaster is just beginning in certain areas,” Myers said in a statement. “Parts of Houston, the United States’ fourth largest city, will be uninhabitable for weeks and possibly months due to water damage, mold, disease-ridden water and all that will follow this 1,000-year flood.”
Working in Oroville’s favor is that while funding for such things as debris removal and public assistance is immediate, larger projects to rebuild the Gulf Coast region after Harvey are “a ways away,” Inge said.
“This immediate needs funding is designed to slow the burn … in the disaster relief fund until some additional funding is secured through Congress,” he said.
Congress approved a nearly $52 million emergency relief bill after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf in 2005 and a $50 million bill after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012. Typically when Congress approves money for FEMA, it’s used for every project, Inge said.
“Each project is judged on its own merit, and each project is going to move at a different pace,” he said.
“We’re going to be busy over the next year or so between what we have here and what’s going on around the Gulf Coast,” he said.