Jan. 29, 2020 – Sacramento, California – – The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have filed claims against the $13.5 billion PG&E settlement, a move that could deeply affect California wildfire victims.
The claims seek reimbursement for services the agencies provided in response to the California wildfires, including the Butte Fire in 2015, the 2017 Northern California fires, including Tubbs, Nuns, Atlas and Redwood Valley fires, and the Camp Fire in 2018. FEMA’s claim asks for $3.9 billion and the Cal OES claim asks for $2.3 billion, a total amounting to nearly half of the settlement designated for victims whose lives were turned upside down by the wildfires.
The attorneys at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman and the wildfire victims we represent are outraged that these government agencies are asking for money from the very victims they offered to help. These people are living with the trauma of leaving their homes, in some cases narrowly escaping with their lives, in addition to the financial burden of relocating and rebuilding their homes and businesses. The threat of having to give back the government aid they received in good faith is not just demoralizing, it is downright heartless.
How Can FEMA and Cal OES Take Money from California Wildfire Victims?
Most of the disaster relief aid offered to fire victims, including housing, transportation, and other necessities, came from federal funds that were funneled through the state. FEMA said it has a duty to hold third parties accountable for causing a disaster that leads to tax dollars spent on relief. While the agency has said it is most interested in holding PG&E responsible, a FEMA spokesperson recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that it may seek reimbursement from California wildfire victims if PG&E does not pay.
“We really haven’t played out a scenario like this before, we can’t say exactly what we’re going to do,” said FEMA spokesperson Robert Barker. “Yes, it will be complicated and yes, it will be difficult and, yes, it will be disruptive for wildfire survivors.”
In the wake of the Camp Fire in 2018, FEMA told victims who lost homes and businesses that they would not face additional costs if they accepted government aid for debris removal. Now, the agency is attempting to attribute costs for debris removal that is far more expensive than private contractors would have charged.
“FEMA ‘offered help’ and now seeks to be repaid many times what is should have cost,” says Diane Marger Moore, an attorney at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman who represents victims of the 2018 Camp Fire. “That is an abuse of the public trust and, in this case, adds insult to the life-changing injury that our clients have already suffered. FEMA was so deficient in response to this disaster; they should be made to compensate victims for the damages they caused.”
A potential reversal of this promise threatens the restitution that fire victims desperately need and could be a blow to FEMA’s trustworthiness in future disasters, something an agency best known for its failures can ill-afford.
James Lee Witt was the director of FEMA for the better part of a decade. When asked about FEMA’s claim against the PG&E wildfire settlement, he was dismayed, calling the agency’s actions “unusual,” and “inappropriate.”
“You’re taking money away from the rebuild and individuals when your job is to help individuals—not to take money away from them,” Witt said.
The attorney’s sentiment is shared by one of her many wildfire clients, Lynn Costa, who lost her Paradise home in the Camp Fire.
“The $13.5 billion settlement is grossly inadequate and the proposed fund keeps shrinking now that FEMA and Cal OES want to take a cut,” Costa wrote in a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom. “These government entities need to stand down and PG&E needs to increase the fund so we all have a chance to rebuild our lives, which is a monumental task.”
“This claim is the nail on the coffin for those of us trying to make sense of the disaster, survive as best we can, and cope with the most devastating experience of our lives,” wrote David Luce, a 73-year-old music therapist who lost everything in the Camp Fire.
“And now I hear that the State of California wants repayment for the services that I regularly pay taxes to receive. My anger, resentment, frustration, and disgust sit in my mind and my heart, every day. Rather than try to get a piece of the pie, why not help those of us who are still trying to find our way or even take the next step; how about demanding that each and every claim filed by the victims of this disaster receive full reimbursement for the physical losses they have endured?”
Many lawmakers from across the state have written letters to FEMA and Cal OES expressing outrage and dismay over the agencies’ claims. California State Senator Scott Wiener called FEMA’s claim “disgusting.” A vocal PG&E critic, Senator Wiener plans to introduce legislation that would put PG&E under state ownership.
What Can California Wildfire Victims Do?
We have encouraged our clients as well as any other wildfire victims to write to Governor Newsom to make sure your voices are heard. We have posted some letters from our clients below.
This issue is being determined in the next few days by the court, but your voice may be heard if you choose to express your opposition to the abuse of the fund to repay the government. If you care to share your feelings, please send the letters to us and we will forward them to the committee that has objected to the abuse of the fund to pay the Cal OES.
Letters from Wildfire Victims to Gov. Newsom
Dear Governor Newsom,
My husband and I lost our Paradise, CA home, belongings and community in the Camp Fire and have filed a claim against PG&E. I am writing to state my concerns and objections regarding the proposed settlement for fire victims.
$13.5 billion settlement is grossly inadequate and the proposed fund keeps shrinking now that FEMA and Cal OES want to take a cut, too. These government entities need to stand down and PG&E needs to increase the fund so we all have a chance to rebuild our lives, which is a monumental task.
PG&E victims should be ‘made whole’ before non-victim creditors receive any funds, before executives receive bonuses and before Wall Street investors and bondholders cash in. People in Paradise and surrounding areas are greatly suffering. Victims need to come first.
Our financial hardship is real. Asking us to take stock as part of a settlement is unacceptable. Cash only, no stock. We need a settlement in full, not over a period of time. PG&E’s high paid executives can figure that out, I’m sure. I know this is a difficult situation and there is much to balance. Please, keep your focus on those of us trying to recover from PG&E’s negligence — the tens of thousands of us who are struggling to rebuild our lives. We need a settlement that we can live with, literally.
Camp Fire Survivor
Governor Gavin Newsom
Re: Claim for Reimbursement for State Services related to the Camp Fire
With all due respect Governor, this claim is the nail on the coffin for those of us trying to make sense of the disaster, survive as best we can, and cope with the most devastating experience of our lives.
It’s not enough that the $13.5 billion dollars will barely compensate for the personal loss sustained by each and every victim of that fire, that the insurance companies want to be reimbursed, or that every scumbag of the universe wants a piece of the action! There isn’t enough money to pay for the personal trauma that each of us has experienced! But in this contemporary world of dog-eat-dog, I’ll get even with you, and I want your money, lawsuits and cash payments are somehow supposed to make up the for emotional and physical losses for victims. And now, your Office of Emergency Services wants a payback. GIVE ME A FRIGGIN’ BREAK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I retired in August 2017 and moved to Paradise only to lose every single artifact of my 73 years of life experience: antique furniture; custom/collectible artwork; a vinyl record collection of over 500 rare, collectible, and other albums; a CD collection of nearly 700 titles; an audio cassette collection of nearly 200 titles; multiple musical instruments and books for my profession as a music therapist; the “Baby Book” that my mother made for me including a lock of hair from my first haircut and the wrist band from Chicago’s Lying-In hospital where I was born; my father’s, mother’s, grandfather’s and uncle’s funeral registers; an extensive collection of records and papers from my genealogical research; countless photographs and color-slides of my grand-parents, parents, family members, loved ones, and various events and travels across the country; custom built furniture; file cabinets full of important papers; music compositions, 16- mm and 8-mm films, and artwork that I created; treasured gifts from my deceased mother and sister; an embroidered and framed religious art-piece from my great-aunt who was a nun; a hand woven, afghan for my king sized bed, from my deceased sister; and gifts and memorabilia of various events in my life, and much more.
I escaped with my guitar, a transverse wooden flute, four days of clothes, and my car. Once I went through the severe emotional trauma of remembering and listing every physical item that I lost in order to report it to the insurance company, my total “financial” loss was calculated as significantly more than my renter’s insurance reimbursement.
This post-fire life has been hell with consistent and persistent uncertainty. I am still living in a hotel and relatively unsure about everything. My emotional state has never been this fragile.
Every day, and many times throughout the day, I think about the pieces of my life that were lost in the fire. The ones I remember most often are difficult to think about, but there were many things that I probably hadn’t looked at, or been able to deal with for years, e.g., the music compositions, the 16-mm and 8-mm movies that I created as a student at San Diego State: I probably should have converted them to digital format, but never did. The photos and slides that I should have put in an “evacuation box” or at least digitized. My framed diplomas, professional certifications, grade school and high school class photos, a San Diego Padres pennant from somewhere back in the 1970’s, a large photo of me playing with my band, Panic Inc. at a the “Shindig Club” in Lexington Park, MD, in 1967 when I was in the Navy. Then, of course, there’s the “what ifs” of it all?
Sure, the memories are in my head, except of course for the ones I’ve forgotten, either on purpose or just because I forgot. And sure, when I die, no one will have to figure out what to do with all of my “stuff”, like my brother and I had to do for our sister when she died in 2007. But still, I feel a deep sense of loss, sorrow, and grief at multiple moments of every day for the memorable, valuable, and collectible artifacts that I had gathered in my 73-years of life. And, I will continue to feel that loss, sorrow, grief, anger, depression, and “what if-ing”, every day, for the rest of my life.
As I reflect on my own situation, I oftentimes feel somewhat guilty about the fact that I was “only a renter” and hadn’t lost as much as others, or that my evacuation experience was much more subdued than others driving for their lives through town and down the Skyway with flames leaping up from both sides of the road. And, those who lost loved ones, friends, pets, or didn’t make it.
And now I hear that the State of California wants repayment for the services that I regularly pay taxes to receive. My anger, resentment, frustration, and disgust sit in my mind and my heart, every day. Rather than try to get a piece of the pie, why not help those of us who are still trying to find our way or even take the next step; how about demanding that each and every claim filed by the victims of this disaster receive full reimbursement for the physical losses they have endured?
PG&E failed its customers by not maintaining equipment or updating their infrastructure in favor of corporate bonuses, dividends, and payouts. The state of California collects taxes and revenues to provide services. The insurance companies collect premiums in order to compensate for losses. In what manner of justice or even logic, do any businesses or government entities get to profit from this devastating loss that has inflicted so much harm on so many people? Please withdraw the Office of Emergency Services claim against PG&E.
Thank you for listening.
David W. Luce, PhD, MT-BC
To: Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
From: Camp Fire Survivor Dave Ellis, Previous California Resident
To whom it may concern:
Please allow me to tell you an amusing and true story. I recently filed a claim for a Mass Tort lawsuit against PG&E for not adequately servicing their equipment in Butte County, California. I received a letter from my attorney informing me of a $13.5 Billion cap. Having a degree in Business Administration, I started crunching numbers. My wife and I are in a typical situation for those who have lost their homes at the Camp Fire, so I used our situation to calculate the following.
Structural damage: Our home was insured, but not to the costs of rebuilding in today’s economy. There is a $255,615 difference between what we were paid out and the cost to rebuild. Multiplying that with the 18,804 structures that were lost from this fire comes to around $4.8 billion.
Personal Trauma: My wife went through what all other fleeing individuals went through; the horror of not knowing your fate. Picture yourself in your vehicle behind thousands of other vehicles who are all attempting to leave town. The sky is filled with black and orange billowing clouds moving your direction and explosions occurring all around you. Some survivors even experienced the heat of the approaching flames. I was lucky; I left for Sacramento earlier that morning.
The combined population of Paradise and Magalia is around 37,000. Add in surrounding communities and it rises to around 40,000. It was a workday, so I’m estimating 70% of the population was in the area at the time of evacuation; that’s around 28,000 people. Our attorney has computed $200,000 compensation for my wife’s PTSD condition. Multiplying that with the 28,000 estimated population gives you $5.6 billion.
So, I’m adding these figures together and it sums up to $10.4 billion, far below the cap. Then I remember the 85 or so people who actually died from the incident and assumed the remaining $3.1 billion went toward those lawsuits. Then I contact my attorney and inform her that the cap seems pretty accurate, asking her if I’m missing something with my calculations. I about fell out of my chair when she informed me that the $13.5 billion cap includes 5 other fires in addition to the Camp Fire. This cap is simply absurd in my opinion. Something must be done; for the sake of all survivors from California fires, please intervene by removing that ridiculous and insulting $13.5 billion cap.