GATLINBURG - State and local emergency crews are currently assessing the total financial losses caused by the deadly East Tennessee wildfires in a move that could lead to a presidential disaster declaration and financial assistance.
To get a reimbursement, Sevier County must prove that it suffered $324,000 in per capita losses and the state must prove it suffered $9.074 million in per capita losses.
Such losses are not necessarily tied to damages but rather unexpected cleanup costs connected to, for example, the local infrastructure, utilities, debris removal, protective measures and rescue operations.
If the county and state reach the threshold, then the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 75 percent of the costs.
“Those are some of the meetings we’re going to have and try to get a handle on,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner. “There’s a threshold you have to reach but I don’t have all the details. I know the electric company is way up there.”
As it stands, Great Smoky National Park officials said the blazes that damaged areas in the park near Chimney Tops and Cobbly Nob resulted in roughly $5 million in losses. Those costs include aviation resources and overhead and personnel for firefighters brought in throughout the country.
State and Sevier County officials said they should have other estimates soon. The fires started Nov. 23. Typically, governments have 30 days from when a disaster happens to seek a presidential declaration.
“It’s complex and not as simple as ‘we need help’ – you have to count the damage first” said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. “Local officials right now are working with TEMA and we brought in local (emergency management agencies). Those officials will look through what we call a windshield assessment and then we’ll bring in FEMA to verify (the amount).”
If the numbers match up, Flener said, then the state and county can request a presidential disaster declaration.
Last week, FEMA announced that it authorized federal funds to reimburse costs to the state under its Fire Management Assistance Grant, or FMAG, program.
This grant will reimburse 75 percent of the eligible firefighting costs for managing, mitigating and controlling the fire. The grant is separate from the public assistance grant tied to a presidential declaration but it also covers costs like labor, equipment and supplies used for fighting the fire and costs for emergency work such as evacuations and sheltering, police barricading and traffic control.