FEMA disaster assistance formula does not compute

Written By By MARK BROWN Posted: 04/13/2014, 12:40am

My friends in tornado-slammed downstate Washington aren’t the only ones who think they are getting a raw deal from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster assistance program.

Cook County officials say communities here also are treated unfairly by the system FEMA uses to determine which local governments qualify for aid.

Just as Washington was tripped up last week by the way FEMA calculates whether it suffered enough tornado damage to deserve financial help, Cook County suburbs routinely have been denied federal assistance in the aftermath of disasters.

Case in point: last year’s April floods that saw Chicago-area rivers and creeks cause widespread damage, prompting Gov. Pat Quinn to declare most of northeastern Illinois a disaster area.

Most of the collar counties were approved for FEMA assistance after the floods, allowing their local governments to recoup 75 percent of the cost of cleanup, emergency response and public infrastructure repair.

But Cook County’s relief application was rejected.

Was that because the flood damage was greater in the collar counties than in Cook?

Not at all. Cook County reported a loss estimate of $9.3 million, more than twice the losses reported by the next hardest hit county, DuPage, at $4.5 million.

Instead, Cook County lost out because so many more people live here than anywhere else in the state. It’s the flip side of the Washington, Ill., situation.

Let me try to explain. (This will require a little math, so bear with me.)

While FEMA insists there is no set formula for determining who qualifies for what is known as “public assistance,” it is well-established that the agency sets minimum cost thresholds that must be exceeded before the federal government will pay out in a disaster.

There is a state threshold and a county threshold, both determined by applying a per capita cost factor.

For 2013, the state cost factor was $1.39 per person. With a population of 12.8 million people, that gave Illinois a threshold of $17.8 million, meaning Illinois could not qualify for FEMA public assistance unless its costs exceeded that mark.

The November tornadoes that struck Illinois devastated little Washington but fell short of causing $17.8 million in reimbursable losses statewide, at least by FEMA’s calculations. Tough luck, Washington.

In the April floods, however, the losses statewide were pegged at $18.9 million, and FEMA public assistance was approved.

Once the state met its threshold, however, the county threshold came into play. The county threshold for 2013 was based on a cost factor of $3.45 per person.

That meant Cook County, with its population of 5.2 million, needed to exceed $17.9 million in costs before its towns could qualify for help — a higher threshold than for the entire state of Illinois. It barely got halfway there, meaning tough luck to Des Plaines and Westchester and all the other towns that found themselves treading water.

Meanwhile, DuPage County, with a population of 917,000, had to prove only $3.2 million in costs, which it did easily. Some of those federal reimbursements to municipalities in DuPage County are just now starting to trickle in, said James Joseph, DuPage’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“It’s really hard for me to say if it’s unfair or not,” Joseph said.

True, but it’s easy enough for me. It’s unfair.

That’s not intended to begrudge our DuPage neighbors, but as Washington Mayor Gary Manier says, FEMA is “broken.”

Note the irony that it’s almost impossible for Illinois to meet the FEMA state threshold without including Cook County losses, but those losses are rarely enough to help Cook County meet FEMA’s county threshold.

Naturally, this scenario also plays out in other highly populated U.S. counties, but not often enough to prompt a change.

Mike Masters, Cook County’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, has been campaigning — with support from Illinois’ congressional delegation — for federal officials to rethink the policy.

Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk have joined forces to propose a fix to FEMA’s methodology, but there’s no indication it’s getting any traction in Congress, where the current system suits less populous states just fine.

With another flood season just around the corner, there are worries the county’s municipalities will again be left up the creek without a paddle — and forced to pay their own disaster recovery costs.

“It’s kind of like relying on a militia when a foreign invasion occurs,” said Herman Brewer, Cook County’s economic development bureau chief.

Not to be deterred, the Cook County board is expected today to accept a $13.9 million federal grant secured through another arm of the Obama administration to help with flood relief.

There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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