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Durbin predicts FEMA will fund Ill. tornado cleanup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2012 - WASHINGTON – After meeting with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Wednesday that he has “no doubt” that the tornado-struck counties in southern Illinois will end up being eligible for federal disaster aid.

“We’re going to play by the rules. And, following the rules, I have no doubt that, at the end of the day, we’re going to have this declared a federal disaster area,” said Durbin, D-Ill., after a session in his U.S. Capitol office with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. He predicted that a decision could be made in “five or six days.”

Earlier this week, FEMA had declined to grant federal “major disaster” assistance to Illinois, Missouri and three other states that had applied after damage from recent severe storms and tornadoes. The agency granted such aid to Indiana and Kentucky.

Fugate did not speak with reporters after the meeting with Durbin, but he said in a statement Tuesday that FEMA’s decision had followed standard guidelines that call for assessing factors such as damage, levels of insurance and the availability of other sources of aid.

“Every disaster is different, with unique circumstances, and in some cases a governor’s request might not be approved,” Fugate said, noting that governors can appeal FEMA’s decision with “additional information” — as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is now doing.

Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, opted not to appeal the FEMA decision to deny federal disaster assistance in the wake of the tornadoes and high winds that struck the state.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Fugate, staffers for Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and U.S. Reps. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville and Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, joined Durbin along with — by conference call — Illinois Emergency Management Agency director Jonathon Monken and a representative of Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

Durbin and others outlined to Fugate why the tornado and severe storms that hit Harrisburg and areas of five counties should qualify for federal disaster aid.

“I’ve never seen this level of tornado devastation,” said Durbin, who visited Harrisburg after the Feb. 29 tornado, which killed seven and injured 100. “It’s an indication to me, and to most, that this should qualify us” for federal disaster aid.

At the meeting, Durbin recounted, Fugate said FEMA needed more information to assess the state’s eligibility for disaster assistance accurately. The senator said, “We have a coordinated federal, state and local effort” to review conditions in the five affected Illinois counties: Gallatin, Randolph, Saline, Union and Williamson.

Monken predicted that the state would be able to resubmit its revised aid application within a few days. Once it receives the new material, Fugate said he expected FEMA would respond within 48 hours, Durbin reported.

A problem with the original aid application is that “FEMA showed up five days after the event” to assess the damage and conditions, Durbin said, at which point “there were still a lot of unknowns.”

He also said FEMA did not fully localize its analysis of economic conditions. “You can look at the state of Illinois’ unemployment rate and poverty rate and draw some general conclusions,” Durbin said, but “in southern Illinois, which went through flooding last year and has historically had economic challenges, some of these issues are much different.”

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat with considerable influence at the White House, said he had no problem with Kentucky and Indiana qualifying for federal disaster aid, but said he felt strongly that Illinois also should qualify.

And Durbin said he wasn’t worried about the concern expressed by Gov. Nixon that Missourians would have to delay eligibility for Small Business loans and other aid if the state appealed FEMA’s disaster-aid decision. “We’re talking about, literally, five or six days” for Illinois to appeal and FEMA to rule, Durbin said, and “when you consider the magnitude of opportunity with a federal declaration, you want to pursue that.”

Durbin added: “I’ll let the governor of Missouri decide his own situation, but Gov. Quinn and our state agencies are committed to this appeal.”

A spokesman for Kirk, who also backs the appeal, said, “We are hopeful that the ongoing evaluations will make the case for what we all know to be true — that the storms caused massive damage that warrants federal assistance.”

Shimkus said in a statement that he was “quite surprised when I got the call Saturday night about FEMA’s denial, after having seen the damage myself. I hope that new information will make an appeal successful, and I will fully support such an effort by the governor.”

And Costello said, “We are all in agreement on the path forward regarding re-evaluating the damage and making sure we have a full accounting of the costs incurred . . . Uninsured losses and the depth of structural damage to buildings are key factors in this process and are being closely monitored.”

Durbin told reporters he was “confident that, at the end of the day, that people in southern Illinois are going to get the assistance they need from Washington.”