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Originally published December 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 9, 2007 at 12:32 AM

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Bush declares flooding a disaster, but action disappoints state leaders

President Bush declared Washington state's flooding a major disaster today, clearing the way for some federal aid. But state political leaders...

Seattle Times chief political reporter

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What a storm!

President Bush declared Washington state's flooding a major disaster today, clearing the way for some federal aid. But state political leaders who toured hard-hit counties by helicopter said the president's declaration isn't nearly enough and that more needs to be done within days.

The federal money is expected to supplement recovery efforts in Grays Harbor, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency named a coordinating officer to oversee federal recovery operations, and said more counties may be added as damage surveys are done.

The declaration provides limited aid for immediate needs such as debris removal and emergency measures, said Dennis Hunsinger, FEMA Region X administrator. The emergency funds are so-called public-assistance aid, which will go to local governments.

Also today, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will give $1 million in immediate aid to the state. Transportation Deputy Secretary Tom Barrett described it as a "a down payment."

"We know more work needs to be done and will be done," he said.

Barrett, Hunsinger and Carlos Castillo, FEMA's assistant administrator for disaster assistance, joined Gov. Christine Gregoire and other state political leaders, including U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, for an aerial tour of the storm- and flood-damaged areas.

As their helicopter flew from Boeing Field to hard-hit Lewis County, Gregoire said she would make $300,000 in emergency funds available for cash grants to families displaced by the floods.

That, she said, was only a Band-Aid, and would at best provide a few days help for flood victims. At a makeshift United Way volunteer center in Chehalis, Gregoire said that Bush must act by Monday to issue a broader emergency declaration that would provide individual assistance.

The tour today was partly for state officials to assess damage in Lewis and Grays Harbor counties. But it was also a lobbying trip of sorts. Gregoire, Murray, Cantwell and Dicks wanted Castillo to get a full picture of the damage — physical and emotional.

"This can't just be about numbers," Gregoire said. "They need to know we're not like California. This is a rural area that was already economically challenged."

At least 100 volunteers were helping flood victims in a makeshift United Way donation center in Chehalis.

Debbie Campbell, United Way Lewis County director, said the response has been "phenomenal." She said that Saturday morning emergency crews rescued a man who tried to swim across the flooded Chehalis River to reach his house. He suffered hypothermia but is recovering.

Campbell said they are just starting to see people who have been trapped inside their houses by floodwaters. "We're still in rescue mode here," she said. "We're not to recovery mode yet."

Gregoire thanked the volunteers and emergency-response officials. And she urged people not to relax their efforts. "We have to continue to be tough; we have to be strong, and we cannot let Mother Nature take us down," she said.

Chehalis was particularly hard hit because of rising water that breached an aging levy system. Gregoire said she will ask the Legislature to authorize a $50 million bond measure to pay for the state's share of a new system. The federal government, Murray said, would spend $74 million for its share.

At W.F. West High School, Gregoire met with House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, in a closed meeting. Afterward, DeBolt said he was pleased with state and local efforts so far but disappointed by the federal government's slow response.

DeBolt asked Gregoire to provide engineers to help get the Boistfort Valley water system running. When the flood hit the water system, the line ruptured and the system now is contaminated. The reservoir had to be drained.

People in that area have bottled water, but residents have been unable to wash out their flood-damaged homes because of lack of water, he said.

On the helicopter flight from Chehalis to Elma, Gregoire, Murray and Castillo sat on the open back ramp of the Chinook. A tether kept them secure.

The helicopter flew low enough for good views of flood damage. Logs were strewn everywhere, cut timber mixed with trees yanked up by rain and slides. A major mudslide could be seen across Highway 6. Cantwell said that it may have only looked like a small rural road, but the highway is a major route for moving timber.

The Washington National Guard helicopter touched down in a field at the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds. In the 4-H building, the touring officials met with local office holders and others.

Gregoire spoke with two women who were flooded out of their homes.

Cathleen Quinton, 26, and Angela Smith, 23, said they'd left their now-ruined houses the night before the flood.

"The house is full of water. The beds are gone. The kids' toys are all gone," Quinton said, breaking into tears. Her daughter keeps asking when they get to go home. Quinton said she hasn't figured out how to tell the 3-year-old that they can't.

Murray and Cantwell joined the conversation along with the women's husbands, Jesse Quinton, 29, and Jason Smith, 27.

The men work for lumber mills which have been shut down since the flood. "Not only did I lose my house, I don't work either," Smith said.

Murray looked for Castillo, saying to Gregoire, "Carlos should hear this," before pulling the FEMA official into the conversation.

Grays Harbor officials had specific requests for the politicians. They want Doppler radar installed on the coast and they want the federal government to allow logging of fallen timber in the flood zone.

Al Carter, chairman of the county commission, said there is old-growth timber piled on the ground rotting.

"We need to get in and get that stuff out," he said. "That puts our people to work. And that's what we need."

State funds available for individual assistance are being coordinated by the state's Department of Social and Health Services. The toll-free number for information is 877-980-9180.

David Postman is The Seattle Times' chief political reporter. Reach him at 360-236-8267 or at dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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