PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - FEMA said no but the USDA says yes to a disaster declaration for the Big Island in the wake of Tropical Storm Iselle.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency has declared a "primary natural disaster" for Hawaii County, triggering the availability of emergency loans for some qualifying farmers.
"This disaster declaration by the USDA opens the door for federal assistance," said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a statement Thursday morning. "In the wake of the denial of a presidential disaster declaration, it is critical that we find alternate sources of support."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approved the declaration after it was requested by the Hawaii state executive director of the Farm Service Agency. Vilsack wrote Gov. Neil Abercrombie Wednesday to say so.
"USDA reviewed the loss assessment reports and determined that there were sufficient production losses to warrant a secretarial natural disaster designation," Vilsack wrote.
According to his letter, this designation makes farm operations "in primary counties and those counties contiguous to such primary counties eligible to be considered for certain assistance from the FSA," which appears to mean that assistance may be available, not only to Big Island agricultural operations suffering storm losses, but also to ranchers on Maui who lost fence and structures to falling trees.
Vilsack said each possible loan is considering on its own merits based on the extent of production losses on a farm and the security and repayment ability of the operator.
The FSA has already received more than 100 inquiries for assistance, according to Sen. Brian Schatz. Eligible farmers gave eight months to apply.
The Big Island's macadamia, coffee and floriculture operations reported storm damage, but papaya was especially hard hit, with an estimated 60 percent of the crop lost.
"Many of the papaya farmers are small, family operations that did not have catastrophic crop insurance," said Sen. Mazie Hirono. "Access to emergency loans is an important option for farmers."