Metro-east congressmen want to reform FEMA disaster aid process

News-DemocratJanuary 23, 2014 

The metro-east's three U.S. House members, along with other Illinois lawmakers, introduced a bill Thursday to reform how the Federal Emergency Management Agency determines which communities get disaster relief.

The Prairie State delegation sponsored the bill in response to FEMA's decision to deny Illinois' request for disaster aid after the devastating late November storms and tornadoes that left six people dead and inflicted heavy damage on the towns of Washington and New Minden.

"Federal assistance should be there in times of disaster wherever it strikes," said U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, in a published statement. "Communities in need should not be penalized because of their location or arbitrary formulas beyond the control of victims."

In a statement issued early Thursday evening, FEMA spokeswoman Cassie Ringsdorf wrote that the state of Illinois' request for public assistance was carefully considered based on joint FEMA and state preliminary damage reports.

"The impact of the event on public infrastructure was determined to be within the capabilities of the State and its affected local governments," Ringsdorf wrote. "Gov. Quinn has indicated that he plans to appeal this decision, and FEMA is prepared to support additional joint preliminary damage assessments to determine if there are additional impacts not previously considered."

Ringsdorf added that FEMA's priority in Illinois is to help people and households affected by the disaster get all the aid for which they are eligible.

"On Nov. 26, FEMA Individual Assistance was made available for individuals impacted by these storms," Ringsdorf wrote, "and already nearly $2.4 million has been paid in grants to households affected by the tornadoes for housing and other disaster-related expenses."

The bill sponsored by the Illinois delegation -- the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014 -- aims to offer more certainty to states and small towns hit by disasters. It does this by giving FEMA a clearer formula for evaluating disaster areas.

The bill assigns a specific weight to each factor already used by FEMA, and adds other economic factors for the agency to consider when determining if a disaster area should receive federal aid.

The flaw with FEMA's current system for awarding post-disaster aid is that it penalizes rural towns in states dominated by large metro regions. As a result, the total cost for repairing storm damage in a rural area of Illinois is relatively small compared to property values across the state, including Chicago, according to Kevin Kern, an Enyart spokesman.

This problem became apparent two years ago when a severe storm damaged much of Harrisburg, Ill., which failed to qualify for FEMA aid, just as it became apparent with FEMA's refusal to provide aid after the severe storms that hit the rural Illinois towns of Washington and New Minden, Kern said.

Davis, in a written statement, said it isn't right when a storm leaves behind damage in Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, but "the only communities to be denied federal assistance are in Illinois. The current system puts downstate and rural communities at a strong disadvantage, and that has to change."

The bill's other sponsors include U.S. Reps. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, Adam Kinzinger, R-Manteno, and Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline.

The House bill mirrors a bill already introduced by U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, and Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, in 2012, but will be retroactive to include all storms that occurred in 2013.

To drive home the point that Illinois deserves federal disaster aid, Kirk has invited Gary W. Manier, Washington's mayor, as his guest at President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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