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Number of 'disaster' declarations picks up

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2011 - WASHINGTON - After a tornado cut a destructive swath through St. Louis County and floods inundated southeast Missouri this spring, the state applied for -- and last week received -- a "major disaster" declaration from President Barack Obama.

It was the second such declaration for Missouri counties so far this year -- the first came in March, for the severe winter storms that struck in early February -- and those two were in addition to a federal emergency declaration in February for snowstorm damages.

This year's early declarations in Missouri -- which ranks ninth highest among states in the number of federal disasters decreed since 1957 -- are adding to a national trend of more disaster declarations in recent years, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics analyzed by the Beacon.

Nationwide, there were already 34 presidential disaster declarations by mid-May, which -- if disasters strike at the same pace for the rest of the year -- means that the 2011 total might exceed last year's record of 81 such declarations. Here is a list of FEMA disaster declarations.

In fact, since 2005 -- the year that Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, causing more than $81 billion in damage and sparking an outcry against FEMA's relief efforts -- the number of disaster declarations has been on the rise. Between 2001 and the end of 2005, there were 267 such declarations; in the following five years, there were 330.

The trend is even more pronounced in Missouri. Since 2006, there have been 19 disaster declarations and four "emergency declarations" in the state -- a whopping increase from the total of five disaster declarations and one emergency declaration from 2000-2005.

In all, Missouri has received 52 federal "major disaster" declarations since 1957, as well as seven "emergency declarations," according to FEMA's database. That ranks Missouri as the ninth highest among states in declared disasters since the late 1950s.

Illinois also has seen an increase in disaster declarations in recent years -- with 13 such declarations since 2006, versus seven declarations from 2000-2005. Overall, Illinois ranks 12th highest among the states, with 50 disaster declarations since 1957.

Defining Disasters

Is the increase in declared disasters related more to changes in severe weather patterns or to a relaxation of FEMA policies in defining what represents a disaster? Or is it simply a matter of happenstance?

A spokesman for FEMA in Washington said the increase in the number of disaster declarations does not reflect a change in FEMA policy but rather has to do with the number of natural disasters striking the country -- as well as the resources of states to handle those events.

"It doesn't have anything to do with a change in policy," the spokesman told the Beacon. He explained that disaster declarations are defined by the severity of the natural disaster, the impact on the state or county, and whether states or local governments have exceeded their resources of recovery.

He said FEMA's criteria in assessing and declaring disasters or emergencies is outlined in this document. In requesting supplemental federal assistance under the Stafford Act, governors must confirm that their state's emergency plan has been implemented and also certify that:

  • The severity and magnitude of the disaster exceed state and local capabilities.
  • Federal assistance is necessary to supplement the efforts and available resources of the state and local governments, disaster relief organizations and insurance compensation.
  • The state and local governments will meet federal cost-sharing requirements.

The most recent disaster declaration for Missouri, which came last week applied to St. Louis County for the tornadoes that struck on Good Friday in April as well as to four Missouri counties -- Butler, Mississippi, New Madrid and Taney -- hit by recent floodingresulting from torrential rain.

The previous Missouri disaster declaration this year, issued in March, was for the "winter storm and snowstorm during the period of Jan. 31 to Feb. 5," and covered 59 of the state's counties. And the emergency declaration, on Feb. 3, also applied to that winter storm.

The most recent Illinois disasterwas declared in March for the severe winter storms that struck the state the previous month.

A map of presidential disaster declarations from 2000-2010 shows the darkest red areas receiving the most declarations. In comparison to a map showing declarations from 1964-2007, it's clear from those maps that Missouri became a "redder" state in the first decade of the 2000s, in terms of the frequency of declared disasters. Greene and Webster counties in southwest Missouri got the most disaster declarations between 2000 and 2010. In Illinois, Greene County led all other counties during that same decade.

"Severe storms" was listed as a factor in nearly every Missouri disaster declaration, with "flooding" listed in 38 of Missouri's and "tornado" listed in 20 of the state's 52 disaster declarations. Most of the disasters struck in the spring (26) with winter storms ranking second (12) and summer and fall disasters less common.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.