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Wyden vows to push for more aid to Vernonia

Senator says effort will go on 'until community is healed'
by: Rick Swart, Tony Hyde (left), chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, talks about efforts to reconstruct Vernonia's flood-damaged schools during a town hall meeting conducted by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (right) Friday.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden promised to 'look under every rock' to find more assistance for residents of Vernonia, who are still trying to rebuild their community in the wake of devastating floods last month.

'There is a lot of work to do,' said Wyden, who was flanked by a cadre of federal emergency services personnel at a town hall meeting Friday in the Scout Cabin, a community center in the heart of the flood-ravaged logging town. 'All of us will stay at it until the community is healed.'

It was Wyden's second visit to Vernonia since torrential rains inundated the town on Dec. 4, causing an estimated $21 million damage to schools, businesses and hundreds of homes. Wyden said someone had to 'work in the salt mines' when other senators are fixated on the presidential primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Wyden led a gritty two-hour session, fielding dozens of questions, and pressing agency staff to help individuals on the spot in a separate room at the back of the meeting hall.

Local residents expressed concerns ranging from the effects of too much logging, confusion over insurance coverage and the future location of Vernonia schools. All 100 people in the room had the chance to ask one question, and some got to ask two.

'This is grassroots democracy,' said Wyden, who joked that nobody needed to pay $1,000 for a fancy dinner for the opportunity to talk to his or her senator.

At one point Wyden asked his staff to usher a man to another room to help him fill out the paperwork he needed to recover from the loss of his business, an elder foster care facility located about two blocks from the banks of the Nehelam River. At another point Wyden asked for a show of hands in response to Vernonia resident Steve Johnson's claim that his insurance company tried to 'low-ball' him on the extent of his losses.

'This is a time when they should be a comfort,' Johnson said of the insurance company. 'It's almost as bad as the flood itself. It's appalling, disgraceful and exactly what we don't need.'

Wyden seemed sympathetic, saying, 'It's like you get hammered once by this terrible flood, then get pushed around by these insurance companies.' He promised to look into federal flood insurance programs and to fix them if they are misleading or confusing.

Others were anxious to jump on the bandwagon.

Sen. Betsy Johnson said she is asking the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services to investigate. Columbia County Commissioner Joe Corsiglia added that he plans to convene a meeting of all the insurance companies in the area to explain the nuances of flood insurance.

And so it went - a full-court press, with Wyden leading the charge.

'I think you're getting the sense that there's going to be a lot of assistance,' said Wyden. 'If one person falls through the cracks, that's one person too many.'

Patty Buchanan, who brought her young daughter to the meeting, evoked special attention from the senator, himself a new parent. She was concerned about rebuilding Vernonia's badly damaged school buildings - at the same place where they have twice flooded in the past 11 years.

'There's no point in continuing to raise them,' Buchanan said.

Vernonia residents, including Mayor Sally Harrison, have expressed concern about FEMA rules that may require that buildings be raised their same location rather than moved to qualify for federal funding.

County Commissioner Tony Hyde said Vernonia would most likely have to build anew and that while there would likely be some state and federal funding, those sources 'are not going to make us whole.' The implication was that Vernonia residents themselves may have to help pay for a new school by passing a bond levy.

'How do you pass a bond in this environment?' Buchanan responded.

Wyden said he would 'pull out all the stops' to help the community restore Vernonia's schools. Hyde added that school reconstruction is also one of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's top priorities.

Despite the repeated promises of help, Wyden qualified his remarks by saying the budget environment in Washington, D.C., is difficult because of the ongoing war effort and the president's tax cut.

'We don't have the money to spend on reconstruction here at home because we're spending it on reconstruction somewhere else,' he remarked, referring to the war in Iraq, the cost of which is approaching $1 trillion. He received a rousing round of applause when he stated the president should bring U.S. troops home.

Several people gave Wyden accolades for spearheading the flood relief effort and for taking such a strong interest in Vernonia.

Dolph Diemon, lead staff member for FEMA, noted that Wyden had a request for a disaster declaration on the president's desk two days after the flood, which expedited federal relief efforts.

To date, Vernonia has received $3 million of $4 million in federal flood relief that has been dispersed in Oregon for the December 2007 disaster thus far, according to Denise Everhart, FEMA spokesperson.

'Any time you can get a U.S. senator to stick around that long you know he's sincere,' Corsiglia said as the last members of the audience wandered out of the community center, two hours after the meeting began. 'He has been voting for things like the war and New Orleans; now it's his place that is hurting, so it's payback time.'

Lavern Schoonover, the elder foster care facility owner who lost his business in the flood, wasn't so sure.

'I'm hoping,' he said, 'But we did this same kind of thing about two weeks ago and nothing has happened since then.'