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FEMA once again turns down Illinois appeal for tornado disaster aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2021 - CHICAGO – Despite an appeal by Illinois' governor and congressional delegation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined Wednesday for the second time to grant federal “major disaster” aid for tornado-struck areas in the southern part of the state.

“The fact that the federal government has denied disaster aid – and done so with little explanation – defies logic,” said U.S Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The tornadoes that struck on Feb. 29 had killed seven people in Harrisburg, Ill.,  and damaged 100 homes.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said he did not think FEMA’s rejection of the state’s appeal “reflects the reality and devastation on the ground.”

In a statement, Quinn said his office would seek “any and all assistance available to help our Southern Illinois communities recover,” including Small Business Administration disaster loans.

When FEMA denied the state's initial request for “major disaster” aid earlier this month, the agency said its analysis had indicated that the state had sufficient resources to help Harrisburg and other communities hit by the severe storm. FEMA says it followsestablished guidelines in deciding whether a state meets the criteria for aid.

After meeting last week with Durbin and representatives of the state and other congressional offices, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate had agreed to a speedy assessment of the revised aid application by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

The state’s appeal, sent a few days ago, provided more detailed damage assessments as well as more localized statistics on factors such as unemployment rates and income levels in the five affected counties: Gallatin, Randolph, Saline, Union and Williams.

Durbin told reporters after last week’s meeting that he thought the state eventually would be granted the disaster designation, as were Indiana and Kentucky – parts of which also damaged by severe storms between Feb. 29 and March 3. Missouri and Ohio, which also were hit by tornadoes, were denied disaster designation but opted not to appeal.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said they planned to work with Quinn in the next few days to identify opportunities to get other forms of federal help for Harrisburg, Ridgway and other affected communities.

Even though the state was denied a presidential disaster declaration, those communities remain eligible for other types of federal disaster assistance – most importantly, Small Business Administration grants that can help homeowners, renters and businesses repair or replace disaster damaged real estate, personal property, machinery, equipment, inventory and business assets.

While saying he was “extremely disappointed” by FEMA’s decision, Shimkus – whose district includes hard-hit Harrisburg – said that “charitable donations have been coming in to help the communities affected, as I see collection boxes and fundraisers as I travel my district.”

Costello said “we will fully pursue other types of federal assistance, and we send our thanks to all the first responders and citizens that have given so much over the past three weeks to help those in need.”

After FEMA’s initial rejection of Illinois’ disaster aid request, Fugate said in a statement that the federal agency is “not always the only option. The volunteer organizations, state and local officials supporting residents during this time of need have accomplished a tremendous job.”

Even if FEMA rejects a governor’s request for a major disaster declaration, Fugate said in his blog this month, “that is not necessarily the end of the story, in terms of federal government assistance. The decision means that the state can proceed to work directly with other federal agencies that can help through their own authorities. These agencies include the Small Business Administration, HUD, Department of Agriculture and others, as well as voluntary agencies.”

SBA loans

Update: On Thursday, the SBA issued a disaster declaration for Saline County, where Harrisburg is located, which will allow residents and businesses in the region severely impacted by the tornadoes and severe storms to receive SBA grants. The designation also includes the counties that surround Saline including Gallatin and Williamson Counties.

Earlier in the day, Durbin, Kirk, Shimkus, and Costello were joined by the other members of Illinois' Congressional Delegation sending a letter supporting the state's request to President Obama asking him to issue a SBA Disaster Declaration for Saline County.

"This declaration will give residents and business owners critical access to low interest loans and other funding sources that will help them rebuild. We are committed to ensuring that these communities are able to recover fully, and will continue to working with the State of Illinois to identifying other opportunities for federal assistance," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.