Biden excludes Santa Clara County from storm relief funds

President Joe Biden landed in Santa Clara County Thursday to assess the extent of federal aid needed following the devastating storms that pummeled the region.

The president deplaned Air Force One at NASA Ames Moffett Federal Airfield around noon, following his announcement to expand federal aid to California counties impacted by severe weather conditions. Funds for home repairs and temporary housing are available to those affected in Sacramento, Merced, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin and Santa Barbara counties — but not in the South Bay.

Biden was greeted by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo before jetting off to tour central coast communities including Santa Cruz, Capitola and Aptos which saw more intense landslides, flooding and infrastructure damage caused by barrage of atmospheric river storms that hit the region in late December.

Later in the day Thursday, Biden stopped by Aptos where he addressed the community ravaged by the storm.

“While the situation is still treacherous, we’re cautiously optimistic that the worst part is behind,” Biden said. “We know some of the destruction is going to take years to fully recover and rebuild. But we got to not just rebuild, we got to rebuild better.”

The storms took the lives of 21 Californians, Biden said. More than 20,000 households statewide lost their power through the storm and nearly 150,000 people were under evacuation orders. Now it’s down to 1,400 under evacuation orders and 300 people are still in shelters across the state.

Eshoo said she asked the president to add Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to his National Disaster Declaration “so that people can receive the assistance they so desperately need to restore and repair their homes and businesses.”

President Joe Biden deplanes from Air Force One and transfers to this helicopter to traverse central coast counties impacted by the recent storms. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Santa Clara County is not one of the seven counties listed in the Presidential Declaration of Major Disasters, so residents and businesses here can’t get federal assistance for home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses or other recovery programs.

“What this means is until your county is declared, you cannot register for FEMA assistance,” FEMA spokesperson Renee Bafalis told San José Spotlight. “Additional counties are now undergoing their preliminary damage assessment so I would say it’s very possible that more counties will be added in the coming days.”

San Jose State Professor Emeritus Frances Edwards said South Bay cities like San Jose are probably not seeing those dollars because they did not see as much damage. Creeks and streets flooded, but the human toll was not as severe.

“There’s no assistance of any kind for individuals or households unless you are in one of those seven counties,” Edwards told San José Spotlight. “And at the present time, there’s no assistance for rebuilding anything, or making permanent repairs.”

In Santa Clara County, damages would need to exceed $8 million and be across the county to qualify for the presidential declaration.

Santa Clara County and local cities are still doing damage assessments, but did not disclose estimates. However, because Santa Clara County is not one of those seven counties, it’s fair to assume the federal government determined the county can cover the costs, Edwards said.

“We’re probably over $8 million in police overtime alone,” she said. “However, all things considered, the state apparently doesn’t think that we have reached the threshold where we need (that type of federal) assistance.”

Despite the federal government not including the county in its emergency declaration, Newsom declared a state of emergency on Jan. 4 for more than half the counties in California including Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Newsom’s actions allow Santa Clara County to apply for state or federal assistance to help cover damages to public infrastructure or emergency costs such as police overtime.

In San Jose damages include dozens of parks closed because of localized flooding. Heavy rains mostly posed life-threatening risks to homeless residents living by waterways. San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan announced a state of emergency and voluntary evacuation order for homeless communities earlier this month.

This week, the city opened evacuee transition facilities for displaced homeless residents at three interim housing sites across the city — Rue Ferrari, Monterey/Bernal and Mabury. The 132 spaces will provide temporary shelter to those impacted until Jan. 23, according to the city.

City Manager Jennifer Maguire said San Jose was one of the first California cities to issue a local emergency and evacuation order.

“The order enabled us to save lives and focus on our most vulnerable communities, including the unhoused residents living within waterways throughout the city,” Maguire said. “The emergency evacuation centers provided a safe, dry place to protect evacuees for the duration of the storms.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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