The Smart Money: Lewiston, fires, and government aid

Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: Lewiston, fires, and government aid

From left, Gov. Paul LePage tours burned-out apartment buildings with Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald and Lewiston Fire Chief Paul LeClair on Bartlett Street.  (Image Sun Journal)

by Gina Hamilton

LEWISTON — On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage went to Lewiston to tour one of the fire sites — the only site which had been vacant at the time of the fire. For readers living in other states, Lewiston had three major fires in a single week, which rendered nearly 200 people homeless. Two of the fires were allegedly started by two 12-year-old boys, and the third is under investigation.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way and other charities are stretched to the breaking point to try to find temporary shelter and necessities for people who have lost everything. 

Lewiston is a poor community that has a lot of people already on public assistance. Some 23 fire victims were from one large refugee family alone. The town has no money to help its own citzens out.

So when LePage showed up, city officials were hopeful that the city could be declared a disaster area, triggering some kind of state funding and possibly federal funding, to help the displaced residents.

Unfortunately, LePage, who did ask for a list of the city's needs, said that the state has no money to help.

Not even discretionary funding?, the city officials wanted to know.

"I've been in office for a little more than two years," LePage quipped. "If there are any discretionary funds, I haven't found them."

In response to a question from a reporter, LePage went on to say that being in Lewiston, his home town, brought back "bad memories."

That isn't what anyone was hoping ... or expecting ... to hear.

Normally, when there's a disaster, natural or not, the governor of a state rides to the rescue. It doesn't matter whether the governor has an R or a D after his name; he or she shows up, tours the region, holds the hands of those who were affected, and promises the full faith and credit of the government to get people back on track. The governor praises the people of the region and says that he is sure that the great community of wherever will soon be back to normal.

If it's a manmade disaster, the governor also adds that justice will be served, or an investigation done so that the problem Never Happens Again.

Compare and contrast LePage's behavior ... in which he toured only a fire site that had been vacant at the time of the disaster ... with any other situation where a governor takes a lead role in a major crisis. LePage versus Deval Patrick after the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance. LePage versus New Jersey's Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy. LePage versus Texas' Rick Perry after the West Fertilizer explosion. LePage versus Illinois' Pat Quinn at the funeral of murder victim Hadiya Pendleton.

What all of these governors did ... even generally clueless Perry ... was exactly what a community torn apart by grief and loss needs. Which is the opposite of what LePage did on Tuesday.

LePage didn't even exhort Maine citizens to donate to the Red Cross or other local charities, the very least he could have done.

LePage's own government, by contrast, had already been on the move. MaineHousing and Maine DHHS sent out a release on Monday to invite people displaced by the fires to attend a housing fair on Wednesday from 1-5 p.m. at the Lewiston DHHS office, which is on 200 Main St. They also invited property managers and landlords with vacant apartments to attend the fair, and encouraged them to advertise on MaineHousingSearch.org for free.

By the time LePage showed up in Lewiston, MaineHousing already had a link on their website for fire victims.
Maine legislators serving the Lewiston area have set up office hours for this Saturday at the Lewiston Public Library from 11 a.m. to noon. 

The delegation has also written a letter to the governor asking him to declare a state of emergency, which would in fact trigger the kind of discretionary funds for Lewiston LePage doesn't know about, so that it can house its citizens, many of whom are still camping out in the Lewiston High School gymnasium, and provide some support. 

They also noted that the Governor's Emergency Funds were created with such an emergency in mind.

The letter to the governor is part of the delegation’s efforts to secure assistance for fire victims. The delegation has also been reaching out to state and federal agencies in search of assistance for residents.

The letter to the governor was sent by Reps. Wayne Werts, Michel Lajoie, Michael Carey, Nathan Libby and Margaret Rotundo and Sen. Margaret Craven. The text of the letter follows:

Dear Governor LePage:

On behalf of the Lewiston community, we write to request assistance from the state to help those who have lost their homes in the recent fires. Over the past week three devastating fires destroyed several apartment buildings in Lewiston. The fires destroyed the homes of more than 200 people, and many of these Lewiston residents are now living in the Lewiston High School Gymnasium. This is causing vast emotional hardship.

We urge you to declare this situation an emergency and to access all state and federal funds. Further, this is exactly the scenario the legislature anticipated when it created the Governors Emergency Funds, and ask that you use those funds to help address this emergency.  

We look forward to hearing your suggestions on how to help families that have lost their homes.

Sincerely,

Lewiston Delegation

 

If these had not been residents' homes, but rather a business park, what would LePage's response have been? Sadly, we suspect that it would have been much more immediate, and helpful.

Rep. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, said that he and his delegation are looking into both state and federal emergency funding that could become available if the Lewiston fires are declared an emergency by the governor.

Libby, who is also on the City Council in Lewiston, said that community support has been overwhelming. Although the Red Cross and other charities are no longer accepting food, clothing, pots and pans, and other items of that nature, there is still a great need for mattresses, furniture, and cash donations. Libby asked that anyone interested in helping donate to the United Way of Androscoggin County and request that the funds be used for the Lewiston fire victims. 

Donors may also wish to donate to the Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross or to the Salvation Army of Lewiston.

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