Residents of tiny eastern Washington town say they hope McMorris Rodgers’ bill means no one has to wait for word on assistance the way they did

Two people involved in helping Malden and Pine City recover from the devastating Babb Road Fire last year say a bill from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers could help other cities avoid the helplessness Malden residents felt for months following the blaze.

McMorris Rodgers announced Tuesday she introduced the Making Aid for Local Disasters Equal Now Act to Congress to help rural communities affected by natural disasters.

The MALDEN Act requires the U.S. president to approve or deny a disaster declaration request within 30 days. If the request is not denied within 30 days, then it is approved.

It would ensure rural communities receive recovery assistance by requiring FEMA to work in coordination with state leadership to provide guidance to local emergency managers on developing a recovery team.

They must also assist in identifying short- and long-term recovery resources, including resources to prevent secondary natural disasters like flooding, mudslides and rockslides.

President Joe Biden approved the disaster declaration in February, after President Donald Trump previously declined for months to sign a disaster declaration for Malden and neighboring Pine City.

Scott Hokonson, a Malden volunteer firefighter who is the project director of the Pine Creek Community Long Term Recovery Organization, said having to wait six months for federal disaster aid to come was “hell on Earth.”

If the MALDEN Act existed last year, “it would have answered our biggest question of when will we get help, how much help will we get,” Hokonson said.

Gerry Bozarth, of Spokane County Emergency Management, said even a quick denial from the federal

government would have been better than no response at all.

“Approval or denial of assistance rather than being in limbo would have made a world of a difference,” Bozarth said.

A denial would have given other organizations, charities or local government agencies the green light to step in and provide their own assistance sooner, he said.

While waiting for a response from the federal government, Washington state decided to offer $4.4 million in financial assistance for the cleanup of private residences in Malden, Hokonson said, noting this is the first time Washington has offered that type of assistance in its history.

He said McMorris Rodgers’ bill, if passed, means there’s a chance other communities will not have to experience what Malden went through.

When Biden approved the disaster declaration, it provided funds for city buildings and public infrastructure. However, individual FEMA assistance for households was denied.

The MALDEN Act addresses this by requiring FEMA to work with the state to make disaster caseworkers available for rural communities in the event that a request for individual assistance is denied.

Going forward, Hokonson said the top priority is building homes for those who lost their residences in the Labor Day fire.

Charitable organizations, including a Montana Amish group, have rebuilt two homes, and Hokonson said he expects eight more homes will be built later this year through similar charitable efforts.

According to a news release from the Pine Creek Community Long Term Recovery Organization, officials from state agencies and contractors are in the region completing environmental testing of property and the removal of debris and rubble. Testing is required to determine if there is contamination from the burned debris.

Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization of military veterans and first responders, recently removed 800 burned or dying trees. Bozarth said removing the trees is critical because they would otherwise be susceptible to pests and falling during windstorms.

There’s also a psychological benefit to removing the blackened trees, he said.

“From the perspective of the residents, it looks cleaner and it looks like there’s hope,” he said.

Pine Creek Community Restoration also is partnering with Palouse Alliance, Range Clinics, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and United Way of Whitman County to host a COVID-19 vaccine and health-check clinic for residents of Malden and Pine City. The clinic will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday at Malden Town Hall. Individuals 12 years old and older are eligible for the vaccination, with a parent or guardian present for minors. Walk-ins are welcome.

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