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Durbin, Costello blast FEMA, which explains tornado-aid refusal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Nearly two weeks after tornadoes and severe storms swept across the Midwest, Sen. Dick Durbin took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to blast the Federal Emergency Management agency as “out of touch” for denying disaster aid to hard-hit Illinois.

“It is out of touch with the reality of the damage and suffering that has occurred and the idea that somehow the state and local government can take care of this disaster,” said Durbin, D-Ill., who has asked FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to meet with him in the Capitol on Wednesday. Other Illinois lawmakers will participate by phone conference.

Separately, U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, issued a statement calling for “a more detailed account from FEMA as to why the request was denied. Given the level of damage, with sections of towns totally destroyed, it is hard to believe that the region does not qualify for assistance.  This is particularly hard to understand for the families that have lost everything.”

Start of update: U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, is also supporting the state's appeal of FEMA's disaster decision. A spokesman said Tuesday that his staff will monitor the meeting with Fugate and will follow up as needed to guarantee as much disaster aid as possible to the affected counties. End update.

But Fugate is defending his agency’s decision to grant “major disaster” status to Indiana and Kentucky, while rejecting requests from Illinois, Missouri and three other states hit by the severe storms. In a statement Tuesday, he said those decisions followed standard rules for assessing damage, levels of insurance and the availability of other sources of aid.

“Every disaster is different, with unique circumstances, and in some cases a governor’s request might not be approved,” Fugate said. “FEMA’s decision means that the governor can proceed to work with other federal agencies through their own authorities. The process is not finished yet, and the governor has 30 days to appeal the decision with additional information.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is appealing the FEMA decision. He contends that the state and local governments would have a hard time addressing the disaster, which killed seven and injured 100 in Harrisburg, Ill., and also struck property in Gallatin, Randolph, Saline, Union and Williamson counties.

But Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon opted against an appeal. His spokesman said state officials feared that asking FEMA to reassess might slow down Small Business Administration aid for businesses and people affected by the Feb. 28 storms that hit Branson and other areas, causing three deaths and nearly 100 injuries.

On Tuesday, Nixon requested a disaster declaration from the Small Business Administration that he said would clear the way for financial assistance to Missouri residents and businesses that were hit by the severe storms. SBA disaster loans are issued to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes, and private, non-profit organizations to repair or replace real estate, personal property, machinery and equipment, inventory and business assets that have been damaged or destroyed.

“The tornadoes and storms at the end of February caused heavy damage to homes and businesses across several Missouri counties, and that financial impact will be felt for some time,” Nixon said. “Even as we continue to work at the state level to ensure that communities have the critical resources, assets and personnel to rebuild and recover, I’m seeking this disaster declaration from the SBA to make this financial assistance available to help our citizens and businesses keep moving forward.”

Saying that he wants FEMA’s Fugate to “make the case as to why this devastation doesn’t warrant federal disaster designation,” Durbin said in his Senate remarks: “We could never replace the seven lives that were lost, but we can try to replace the spirit of these communities with federal, state, and local cooperation.”

While Costello expects the Illinois congressional delegation to hear Fugate’s reasoning at Wednesday’s meeting, he said that the affected residents of the five Illinois counties also should be informed directly of the reasons for the federal decision.

“FEMA needs to explain why the storms in Kentucky were worse than the ones in Illinois,” Costello said. “We need to reassess the level of damage and make sure that everything has been fully detailed, and I urge the president and FEMA to expedite this appeal.”

FEMA's process for disaster designation

In a statement to the Beacon, Fugate said, “FEMA has worked closely with the many affected states including the state of Illinois and its local governments to assess the damages from those storms.”

He added, “It’s important to remember that while FEMA always stands ready to assist our governors and emergency management partners during an emergency, we are not always the only option. The volunteer organizations, state and local officials supporting residents during this time of need have accomplished a tremendous job.”

And he added that FEMA remains “committed to working with Illinois throughout the recovery process. As requested by Gov. Quinn, we have FEMA staff on the ground to support preliminary damage assessments for public assistance, which looks at the impacts to local governments and public infrastructure.”

A FEMA spokesman said that the regulations for assessing damage and making a “major disaster” determination are quite specific and were followed in Illinois, Missouri and the other affected states. The rules, as outlined in this “declaration process fact sheet” call for FEMA to assess several “primary factors” in evaluating a governor’s request, including:

  • Amount and type of damage (number of homes destroyed or with major damage);
  • Impact on the infrastructure of affected areas or critical facilities;
  • Imminent threats to public health and safety;
  • Impacts to essential government services and functions;
  • Unique capability of federal government to help;
  • Dispersion or concentration of damage;
  • Level of insurance coverage in place for homeowners and public facilities;
  • Assistance available from other sources, such as other federal as well as state, local, and voluntary organizations;
  • State and local resource commitments from previous, undeclared events; and
  • Frequency of disasters over a recent time period.

“When FEMA joins the state on joint preliminary damage assessments prior to a request — as we have recently in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia — we are looking at things like assistance that is available from other federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, charitable organizations, volunteers and other private interest groups,” Fugate wrote in his blog.

“The level of insurance can often be a major consideration when determining whether a state should request a FEMA declaration,” Fugate added. “Ultimately FEMA cannot duplicate benefits like insurance. In fact, insurance is often the first and best way of protecting your family and property from disaster. Depending on the coverage limits, disaster survivors may be made far more whole by their insurance policy than they would from supplemental federal disaster assistance.”

Even when FEMA rejects a governor’s request for a major disaster declaration, Fugate said, “That is not necessarily the end of the story, in terms of federal government assistance. The decision means that the state can proceed to work directly with other federal agencies that can help through their own authorities. These agencies include the Small Business Administration, HUD, Department of Agriculture and others, as well as voluntary agencies.”

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