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ND seeks what would be first FEMA drought disaster declaration in half century

Gov. Doug Burgum Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK—Gov. Doug Burgum cited the ongoing dry conditions in much of North Dakota when he requested a presidential major disaster declaration for the state Tuesday.

"This request is based upon a severe drought that has adversely impacted state agribusinesses and producers, residents and the overall economy," Burgum said in the request. "During the spring and summer, continuous dry conditions over extended periods of record-breaking heat, well below average precipitation and wind have fueled frequent wildland fires, endangering the health and safety of our residents and the livelihood of our producers."

If approved, it would be the first drought related major disaster declaration issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the continental United States in 52 years, according to the FEMA website.

Parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York were issued a major disaster declaration in 1965 when dry conditions created water shortages.

The regional FEMA headquarters in Denver has requested more information from the state as part of its review process, according to Jerry DeFelice, external affairs supervisor for FEMA Region IV.

Burgum's request seeks to activate the Individual Assistance and the Direct Federal Assistance programs.

"Individual Assistance (programs) is primarily about housing," DeFelice said. "Providing housing funds to repair homes."

Individual Assistance programs could also include disaster unemployment benefits for the self-employed, disaster counseling and a possible expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, in North Dakota.

Direct Federal Assistance programs would include payments to local governments for expenses caused by dealing with the drought.

"Whatever the state might need to deal with the situation at hand," DeFelice said. "It addresses immediate needs."

Under Direct Federal Assistance, FEMA also acts as a coordinator for other agencies including the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

DeFelice said FEMA programs are geared toward flood and storm disasters.

"Drought may be a type of disaster," he said, "but the needs of people don't fit with the kinds of things we can respond with. Usually, it falls to the USDA or SBA."

DeFelice said the regional office's request for more information was not unusual. After the regional office finishes its review, the request is forwarded to FEMA's national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"Ultimately, the decision is made at the White House level," DeFelice said. "There is no set timeline for a decision."