Politics & Government

Will federal assistance come to Illinois to help with flooding costs, damage?

When rivers in Illinois began to slowly creep up in March, the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency began preparing for what has turned into a months-long ordeal.

Sandbags were prepped for local communities, fuel was burned to run sandbagging machines, and even a generator was brought in to run a pump station after it was struck by lightning. As the waters rose, people were needed to patrol levees, which usually leads to overtime costs.

“We’re keeping track of everything we’ve done, starting from back in March, which is when this all started,” said Herb Simmons, director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency. “Everything from the cost of sand, the labor to fill the sandbags, fuel for the pumps that has been used, any type of equipment that would have to be have been rented.”

So as the floodwaters recede, local agencies are preparing to ask for federal assistance to help cover the costs of flood fighting, recovery and cleanup.

Eventually there will be 30-day period to compile the costs, once the entire state is below the major flood stage. Nobody knows when that will happen.

The damage assessments and costs will have to be sent to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

“We are just in the very beginning stages of recovery, so we don’t have a dollar amount right now,” said Mary Kate Brown, the deputy director of Madison County Emergency Management Agency. “So they’re still cleaning up in Alton, and we’ve just been tracking this entire event.”

Requesting a federal disaster declaration

Once those costs are compiled, the governor has the option to request a federal disaster declaration to help reimburse the state and local agencies, as well as individuals, for costs of fighting the flood or recovering from it.

Then it would be up to the president, with the recommendation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to grant the declaration. A federal disaster declaration would allow the state to receive financial help from the U.S. government.

A key factor FEMA uses when considering federal disaster aid is the estimated cost of assistance. Each state has its own threshold to meet, which is based on its population. Illinois’ threshold is $19.2 million.

Rebecca Clark, communications manager for IEMA, said she expects the state to formally request a federal disaster declaration.

“I don’t see how we’re not going to,” Clark said. However, “$19.2 million is a big goal; we can’t do that overnight. This is an unprecedented flood. We’ve been doing this for 100 days.”

She said the state agency has encouraged local agencies and municipalities to keep track of all of their equipment costs and hours worked by employees and volunteers.

“Everything they could keep a tally of will help us reach that $19.2 million,” Clark said.

Neighboring states with smaller populations have a lower threshold to meet. The high threshold puts rural areas in high population states at a disadvantage when trying to receive federal assistance, according to U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.

Other factors FEMA considers are localized impacts, how much insurance coverage local governments and agencies should have, hazard mitigation, other recent disasters, whether there will be other federal assistance, and other economic circumstances.

“For the state, we’re keeping track of all the expense to the state thus far. Certainly we’ve been in contact with FEMA. They know what’s going on, they know what we’re doing on the ground, we know what it is we’ll be asking for at the time,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during a news conference in May, when he announced the activation of the National Guard to help with flood fighting efforts.

No federal help after recent floods

Illinois in the past has not had much luck when it comes to receiving federal aid for disasters. A flood in 2015 led to about $15 million in costs, but the state didn’t receive a federal disaster declaration.

“They kind of accept what they’re able to based on the guidelines, and some of the guidelines could be pretty strict,” Brown said. “There was an expectation we were going to get reimbursed and we did not. I know a lot of people were disappointed with that.”

In 2015 St. Clair County submitted $2.15 million worth of flood response and damage costs incurred in O’Fallon, East Carondelet, Cahokia, Belleville, Caseyville, Mascoutah, New Athens, New Athens Township, Fayetteville, Sugar Loaf Township and Prairie Dupont, for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and damage, Simmons said.

The federal government didn’t cover any of it.

“All of those communities could have used help back then, (and) it’s sad they didn’t get it,” Simmons said. “I can’t tell you right now what I think our costs are going to be … I’m trying to do my best to keep our costs as far as preparedness as reasonable as possible. The damage, I have no control over that.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner also requested federal assistance in 2017 for floods in the Chicago area. That assistance also was denied.

Illinois has a higher threshold because it has a larger population compared to other states.

During a recent visit to Alton to survey the flooding, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, wouldn’t promise federal assistance because he said federal formulas aren’t kind to the state.

Disaster legislation

In an effort to help Illinois fare better when it comes to federal disaster declarations, Davis last year pushed legislation that was signed by President Trump that called on FEMA to use greater consideration of local impact.

“This change is long overdue, and it is one I have fought tirelessly for since my first term in Congress,” Davis said when the legislation was signed. “My legislation will help level the playing field and ensure rural areas, like my district, are treated fairly when a disaster happens and help is needed. I am very happy to see this finally signed into law and that my constituents, who pay into the Disaster Relief Fund, will receive more fairness when seeking federal assistance following a major disaster.”

Ashley Phelps, a spokeswoman for Davis, said if the state requests a disaster declaration, the congressman’s office will support it.

Phelps said the legislation was meant for FEMA to put less emphasis on the dollar amount of damage and more emphasis on a disaster’s impact on a local area. A county with a smaller population may be affected more by a disaster than a county with a larger population.

“Our taxes are constantly going into the funds for disasters, and our state never sees the benefit of that,” Phelps said.

Bordering states see similar damage amounts but they get disaster assistance when Illinois doesn’t.

“We’ll be supportive of whatever the state needs,” Phelps said. “Hopefully the language ... signed into law will actually help in getting assistance.”

FEMA says it has implemented the language pushed by Davis when it makes a recommendation on a disaster declaration for public assistance.

In an email, the federal emergency agency said it recently identified the factors it considers to review any state’s major disaster declaration request for assistance to individuals.

“The decision to declare a major disaster authorizing individual assistance lies solely with the President,” a FEMA spokesperson said. “FEMA makes recommendations regarding the need for individual assistance on a case by case basis considering the relevant information. As identified in the new rulemaking, these factors include state fiscal capacity and resource availability, number of uninsured home and personal property losses, the impact to the community’s infrastructure, and other factors.”

Durbin and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, have introduced legislation that assigns percentages or “weight” to all of the different aspects FEMA considers when declaring a disaster.

FEMA would not comment on the Durbin and Duckworth proposal.

Flood damage expected

But for the most recent flood, damage assessments are beginning, and the final costs will eventually become clearer.

Despite all the preparation, infrastructure damage is still expected.

“There’s going to be some infrastructure that has to be done,” Simmons said. “When you start talking about road repairs and replacement, the cost of the pumps. These pumps have been running 24 hours day, for a long time, a lot of areas are still going to be pumping several weeks in the future here.”

Madison County needs to have $1 million in uninsured damage, which Brown suspects the county has reached, in order to be included in the federal disaster declaration request.

She doesn’t know the odds of the state getting a federal disaster declaration.

“We just do the best we can at compiling every bit of damage we have, overtime hours, every sandbag cost, every sewer that was damaged, all of that kind of stuff piles up to get that magic number that we try to meet to get that federal declaration,” Brown said.

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.