Look at a calculator — not just damage — to understand why FEMA denied Washington tornado aid

Written By By MARK BROWN Posted: 04/07/2014, 01:31pm
Array A firefighter walks down Elgin Avenue in Washington, Ill, on Nov. 18, the day after a tornado ripped through the town in Tazewell County near Peoria. | Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times

Anybody who saw firsthand the devastation wreaked by the tornado that leveled much of Washington, Ill., last Nov. 17 could only have concluded they were looking at a major disaster — the sort of extraordinary event that requires a national response.

Except apparently if the observer happened to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA officials gave Illinois the bad news late Tuesday. The agency reaffirmed its earlier decision that the damage from the 25 tornadoes that roared through the state that day were “not of the severity and magnitude” to warrant federal financial assistance to the local governments responsible for cleaning up the mess.

Not of the severity and magnitude?

I could have accepted FEMA saying: “Doesn’t fit neatly into our rules” or “Sorry, the federal government is broke, too.”

But how much more severity and magnitude do you need than 1,100 homes destroyed in one town, most of them obliterated off the face of the earth in the blink of an eye.

This is a decision that makes sense only in a bureaucrat’s world, which worries me because I think I understand the explanation, as much as I can’t really comprehend it.

In essence, the federal government is saying the people of Illinois should be able to handle this on their own. And, of course, we will — one way or another, even though our state is broke. Gov. Pat Quinn cobbled together a state relief package Wednesday that should help.

That take-care-of-it yourself approach might even appeal to some conservative types — until they realize that if the same tornado had caused the same damage in one of our neighboring states, it would have stood a much better chance of triggering federal disaster assistance.

Here’s how it works.

For a state to qualify for what FEMA calls “public assistance,” a disaster must exceed a damage threshold determined by cost per capita.

For 2013, the threshold was based on a cost factor of $1.39 per person. Based on its population of 12.8 million people, Illinois was assigned a threshold of $17.8 million.

That meant our state needed to document more than $17.8 million in losses from the disaster to qualify for public assistance, which allows state and local governments to be reimbursed for 75 percent of what they spend.

Eligible costs include money spent for such items as emergency response, debris cleanup and repair of public infrastructure or government buildings damaged by the disaster.

In the end, Illinois officials calculated they could show $21.5 million in eligible expenses.

FEMA officials, however, rejected the state’s calculations.

The agency refused to allow most of the city of Washington’s costs for its extensive debris removal operation, contending local officials should have left most of the work to private homeowners and their insurance companies.

The problem with that, as Washington Mayor Gary Manier reminded me Wednesday, is that the freakish late November storm meant the city had to move fast to get as much work done as possible before winter hit. That required a coordinated effort.

In addition, the heavy equipment required for that cleanup work, as well as for the major construction ahead as Washington rebuilds, is tearing up local streets. But FEMA wouldn’t allow those repair costs, either, because they weren’t directly caused by the tornado itself.

Hey, rules are rules. But here’s the rub. States with lower populations also have much lower damage thresholds for FEMA purposes.

That’s why a tornado causing the same amount of damage in a similarly sized small town in Iowa, Missouri or Indiana could qualify for federal assistance even where Washington didn’t.

That doesn’t make much sense to me, or to Illinois senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who have offered federal legislation to try to change the funding formula.

The people of Washington, Ill., are not the kind, in my experience as someone who grew up there, to look first to Washington, D.C., to solve their problems. But I’m sure they’re having a hard time understanding their federal government’s priorities right now.

Officials at FEMA would certainly want me to point out the agency previously approved federal “individual assistance” for Illinois that has allowed homeowners and renters affected by the tornadoes to collect $2.5 million in grants so far. Another $18 million in SBA loans have been approved.

But local government costs are eventually borne by the people who live there, and these tornadoes have created a heavy future financial burden for the taxpayers in towns like Washington, Brookport and Gifford.

This was the type of disaster for which federal assistance was surely intended.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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