FEMA again denies Illinois request for tornado recovery assistance

Federal disaster officials today for a second time denied an aid request for southern Illinois communities battered by deadly tornadoes Feb. 29, ruling against an appeal filed by the state after the first claim was denied two weeks ago.

Gov. Pat Quinn and members of the Illinois Congressional delegation said the decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not reflect the seriousness of the damage from tornadoes, which killed seven people in tiny Harrisburg, Ill., and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses across a five-county area.

“That’s pretty rough,” said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg on Wednesday.
 
Revised damage estimates included in the state’s appeal seemed to meet the requirements for a presidential disaster declaration that would entitle homeowners to grants and other aid to rebuild their homes, Gregg said.

Four of the five counties seeking aid for tornado damage had been designated a disaster area following floods that struck the area in April 2011.

“It’s just unbelievable. I thought we had hit the numbers. We were right on target,” he said. “We’re resilient people. We’re going to make it work.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Quinn said the state would pursue other recovery assistance for the affected communities, including asking for the federal Small Business Administration to provide grants and low-interest loans for homeowners.

“I am very disappointed with this decision and do not believe it reflects the reality and devastation on the ground,” Quinn said.
Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, and U.S. Reps. John Shimkus and Jerry Costello also issued a statement decrying the FEMA decision.

A presidential disaster declaration makes available millions of dollars in loans and grants for residents who have minimal or no insurance, or who otherwise lack the financial means to rebuild, said Louise Comfort, professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management.
 
Studies have shown disaster aid, which is issued by presidential declaration, flows more freely to states with high-ranking members of Congress and in election years, Comfort said.

“One change in the Obama administration is he is dealing with a Congress that is fighting to reduce the deficit,” Comfort said. “Usually (disaster aid requests) have gone though because everyone thinks: ‘You support the disaster in my state, I’ll support the disaster in yours down the road.’ “

Rick Sylves, a George Washington University political science professor who has studied FEMA spending said politics factors into disaster-declaration decisions, but said the agency has clear criteria for when aid is needed.

Typically, a disaster won’t be declared unless the damage exceeds $12 million or state and local budgets or private insurers won’t cover the cost.

The state’s initial application to FEMA listed only about $3 million in damage, though the appeal noted that the hardest-hit areas already had higher than average poverty and unemployment rates.

Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center, noted that as far as natural disasters are concerned, damage from tornadoes usually is far more isolated than what typically occurs during floods, hurricanes or earthquakes.

“That can have an impact on the overall monetary value of the destruction,” Carbin said.
 
The storm front that caused the tornadoes that struck the Harrisburg area on Feb. 29 was not as widespread as the system that swept across much of the southern Midwest and Southeast two days later.

FEMA declared disaster areas in Kentucky and Indiana, which requested FEMA aid the same week as Illinois and Ohio, based on damage from those storms.

agrimm@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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