Metro-East News

Illinois says it didn’t get federal disaster aid due to technical glitch; FEMA denies error

FEMA Hazard Mitigation

Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency discuss assistance programs to mitigate disasters. The programs are meant to protect life and reduce financial losses.
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Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency discuss assistance programs to mitigate disasters. The programs are meant to protect life and reduce financial losses.

Around Illinois, 32 taxing bodies wanted help with reducing the impact of potential disasters and sent their requests to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to pass along to the federal government.

When the state electronically submitted its application for pre-disaster mitigation grants available through the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year funding cycle, IEMA said it experienced a technical glitch in late January in an online portal days before a deadline, which led to Illinois missing out on a piece of the $400 million of federal money that was available.

However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denies a technical error played a role in Illinois’ application.

IEMA says it was one of more than 20 states and tribes around the country that had trouble when applying for the grant dollars.

“Illinois was one of nearly two dozen states and tribes that experienced technical glitches or system errors with the FEMA online portal, which is why we are working diligently with our congressional delegation to ensure that the federal government considers these grant applications,” said Rebecca Clark, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. “A technical error with FEMA’s system shouldn’t prevent Illinois communities from having a fair shot at receiving these grant funds.”

Clark said the next funding cycle opens in six months and local agencies will be able to reapply.

The competitive national program does not guarantee all requests will be awarded, and IEMA said it’s working to identify alternative funding sources for communities’ pre-disaster mitigation projects.

In a statement to the Belleville News-Democrat, a FEMA representative said Illinois did not submit “a timely and complete application” for the pre-disaster mitigation grants. The agency also denied there was a technical glitch.

“After a thorough review of all technical data, Illinois’ failure to submit a timely and complete application was unrelated to a technical error,” the agency said in a statement through the spokesperson.

“To ensure fairness, applicants were given equal access to program information, including all relevant application requirements and deadlines,” the agency added. “Further, all applicants were held to the same standards for review. The responsibility is theirs to understand these requirements and request assistance where needed. Multiple training opportunities, both online and in person, were made available to all applicants.”

The federal disaster agency distributed $400 million worth of grant dollars during the FY2018 funding cycle. FEMA received $800 million worth of requests from 48 states, two territories and 30 tribes, the agency said.

“FEMA is committed to working with Illinois, as we would with any unsuccessful applicant, to address the deficiencies in their application in the hopes that they will successfully complete the process next year,” the agency said.

The full dollar amount for the project proposals during the FY2018 funding cycle from Illinois was not immediately available.

According to the IEMA, since 2003, the state has received more than $18 million in pre-disaster mitigation funding, money that has been used for long-term projects that take years of development.

Projects could include putting together disaster mitigation plans, making alterations to flood walls and levees, putting in culverts to prevent flooding, acquisition and demolition of property, acquiring and relocating properties out of flood zones, and building flood walls.

One of those Illinois agencies to ask for federal financial assistance was the Madison County Emergency Management Agency, which requested $42,000.

The local agency is working to update its hazard mitigation plan — something that is required every five years and needs to be in place to receive federal money for other projects that could be used to mitigate disasters, said Mary Kate Brown, deputy director of the Madison County Emergency Management Agency.

Brown said the county’s current hazard mitigation plan is still in compliance because the county has started the process of having a Springfield-based consultant put its new plan together.

“We still have to get that plan updated, and it’s a huge undertaking,” Brown said. “We’re a staff of three (people). Without grant funding, I guess we’ll get it done on our own.”

Now members of the congressional delegation are pressing both state and federal officials about what happened.

All five GOP members of the Illinois congressional delegation — U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channanon — sent a letter to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker about the situation.

The congressmen asked: “How and why did your administration fail to submit it’s (pre-disaster mitigation) application? What steps will your administration take to ensure this error is not repeated in future years? How does the administration plan to assist the communities that rely on this program to help them mitigate future flooding and other natural disasters?”

The GOP members said there are $15.8 million worth of projects selected for further consideration in the FY2017 program.

In a letter to FEMA’s Acting Administrator Pete Gaynor, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, said she was disappointed that the federal agency deemed Illinois ineligible because of issues with the state’s submission.

“It is unacceptable to allow bureaucratic red tape to prevent communities from receiving the assistance they need to adequately prepare and reduce the impact of flooding,” Bustos wrote.

In Bustos’ letter, she said FEMA staff had not seen Illinois’ application and did not know why the online grant system did not accept the application.

“Despite this admission of a lack of review to assess this rejected application, FEMA insists this could not be a technical issue,” Bustos wrote.

Editor’s note: Reporter Joseph Bustos and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos are not related.