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Federal response to Harrisburg raises questions for other communities hit by disasters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - A month after the Leap Day Tornado, Bonita Humphrey of Harrisburg, Ill., was digging up plants from around her front porch, hoping to save them from being trampled during repair work on her home.

Humphrey’s white frame house suffered broken windows and damage to the porch and roof, which is now covered by a patchwork of colorful plastic sheeting, but it withstood the 170-mph winds that battered Granger Street as the tornado blew through this town of about 9,000 in Saline County. Many nearby homes, including a brick bungalow next door, were wrecked beyond repair.

Humphrey, who lives in the house with her 19-year-old daughter and her son and his family, emphasized how grateful she is that her family survived the storm that killed seven in her community. But finding the money for home repairs has been a complicated struggle. She can’t afford to walk away from this house that she was attempting to purchase in a rent-to-own arrangement, and her landlord had no insurance.

“If I move, I will lose everything I have put into this house,’’ she said. “If we walk away, we walk away without anything.’’

Humphrey, who operated a home day care, said the storm also cost her income. She believes the denial of federal emergency disaster assistance to Harrisburg has prolonged the recovery of many tornado victims, particularly those without insurance.

“I didn’t count on them to help anyway because I don’t count on the government,’’ Humphrey said. “And, honestly, I really think that it’s crap because I think it doesn’t matter who had insurance or who didn’t. I think if there were five people in town who didn’t have insurance they deserve help because they pay taxes just like the rest of the people who do have insurance.

“I think we pay taxes for a reason,’’ she added. “And we pay a lot of taxes, so I think we deserve the help.’’

Humphrey has high praise for the volunteers who have helped the community and also for the nonprofits, including the American Red Cross, that paid for hotel lodging for her family until they could make their home livable. The Red Cross has also helped her buy some building supplies.

“They have been just fabulous,” Humphrey said.

Is Harrisburg in the wrong state?

A week after the Feb. 29 tornado outbreak, Gov. Pat Quinn requested that five southern Illinois counties — Gallatin, Randolph, Saline, Union and Williamson — be declared major disaster areas. Assessment teams from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) determined that 104 homes were destroyed, 50 suffered major damage and 276 were seriously damaged. In addition, 10 businesses in Saline County had major damage and 23 others had also been affected.

A federal disaster declaration would have made available a variety of emergency grants for tornado victims, but Quinn’s initial request was denied, as was a subsequent appeal.

Richard Sylves, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who researches national disaster policy, sympathizes with Harrisburg residents who question the fairness of the FEMA formula that turned down requests from Illinois and Missouri, while granting disaster status for Indiana and Kentucky — for the same storms.

“In the case of the five counties in Illinois that were turned down, they face a problem,’’ he said. “The state qualifies for a disaster declaration — or exceeds the threshold — if you divide the population of the state into the total dollar amount of the damage, and that number cracks the threshold of what FEMA is expecting it to be.’’

The difference in population for Illinois (about 12.9 million people) makes it tougher to meet the per capita criteria than it is for a state such as Indiana (about 4.4 million people), he said.

“The misfortune of those five counties in Illinois is that they happen to be in a state with a large population,’’ he said.

In a statement on March 21 announcing the second denial, Quinn said, “Today we were informed that FEMA denied our appeal for federal assistance to help people in southern Illinois rebuild their homes and lives following the deadly tornado and storms on Feb. 29. I am very disappointed with this decision and do not believe it reflects the reality and devastation on the ground. I remain committed to obtaining any and all assistance available to help our southern Illinois communities recover.’’

But Sylves, who has been studying presidential disaster declarations for 25 years, pointed out that the final decision actually rests with the White House — and that the president doesn’t have to abide by FEMA’s recommendations.

“The president turned down the request,’’ he said. “The way it works is the president has the authority to act on FEMA’s recommendation, whether FEMA has recommended positively or negatively on a governor’s request. But it’s always the decision of the president. To save the president from the negative publicity, they always have FEMA make the announcement of a turndown so it appears that FEMA turned it down. Actually, the president turned it down.’’

Sylves, who analyzes FEMA data, said the turn-down rate for presidential disaster declarations was low during the George W. Bush administration and in the first years of President Barack Obama's administration.

“Turn-downs have ramped up a little in the last year or so and some of this surrounds the concerns of both parties, regarding the size of the national deficit and national debt,’’ he said.

'How fair is it?'

Sylves believes there is an urban bias in disaster assistance that fails to recognize the proportion of impact that a smaller damage amount has on a small community, as compared to the impact of a larger amount of damage on a larger community.

“If there are 500 homes in a community and 100 are damaged, the ability of that town to recover economically is impeded,’’ he said.

On the other hand, a larger town might be able to absorb twice as much damage without major impact, he said.

“You have to think about the impact of the size of the disaster on the size of the community,’’ he said.

Sylves said he recently met with representatives from the Government Accounting Office who are analyzing FEMA policies, and he offered an illustration of the unfairness of the disaster formula.

“The guy sitting across the table from me — assume his house is in Indiana and my house is across the line in Illinois, and we’re a football field away from each other. The same tornado destroyed both of our houses. The guy in Indiana gets help under a disaster declaration. I’m one of these people in Harrisburg, and I’m out of luck. I don’t get any help. How fair is it? It doesn’t really make any sense.”

Sylves also criticized FEMA’s suggestion that Harrisburg had ample resources for recovery available from the state and nonprofits. He said the agency had no numbers to prove that.

“When FEMA people say Harrisburg is OK because it has plenty of nongovernmental agency activity providing assistance, I want them to prove that. Show me the numbers,’’ he said. “How can you simply get up and say that you’ve got the Red Cross, you’re on your own. Oh, it’s great the Salvation Army showed up, you don’t need us.”

'We got a promise letter'

On March 22, the SBA announced that Illinois tornado victims of Saline, Gallatin and Williamson counties would be eligible for low-interest loans. That includes homeowners and renters, as well as businesses, meeting the criteria. And on Monday, Quinn announced an aid package of up to $13 million from state agencies to assist Harrisburg and other southern Illinois communities with tornado recovery. State officials also pledged to continue to work to find additional funding, including federal assistance, for the communities.

The governor’s announcement was met with optimism, said Ron Crank, Harrisburg’s finance commissioner who is serving as acting mayor while Mayor Eric Gregg is recovering from an illness.

“We’ve always got hope when they say they’re still looking,’’ said Crank, who noted that the funding would not be available for several months.

“The way I describe it is, we got a promise letter of the $13 million for what these packages could amount to,’’ he said.

He said the town could recoup up to $400,000 to cover its expenses for tornado cleanup, which would be a positive step for the community. He described the SBA low-interest loans as helpful, but he also noted that poor residents would have greatly benefited from FEMA assistance, particularly emergency grants — of up to $30,000 — that would not have had to be paid back.

But Crank, a retired law-enforcement officer, said he understands not meeting the FEMA criteria.

“If you don’t meet it, you don’t meet it,’’ he said.

Crank said the town is moving on and has developed a long-term recovery committee called STORM, which is an acronym for services provided, including social services case management, temporary housing and housing rehabilitation, coordination of services for victims and volunteer efforts.

“We’re a community that tries to help each other,’’ he said. “We have all kinds of people who are stepping up and doing what’s right — taking the bull by the horns if you want to say that. Whatever comes down the road we’re trying to address it.”

The town is also using this recovery phase as an opportunity to improve the community, he said. For example, city leaders are considering adopting building and zoning codes, since there will be so much new construction.

“In two years, I would hope to be back where we were at or beyond,” Crank said.

Martin Rowe, president of Legence Bank in nearby Eldorado, said that STORM and other charitable organizations will focus on assisting residents who didn’t have insurance — or were underinsured — and lack the means to rebuild. Rowe, who lives in Harrisburg, is also a director of the Southern Illinois Community Foundation, a nonprofit that has established a fund for Harrisburg disaster relief that has so far raised more than $200,000.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 20 percent of Saline County residents are below the poverty level, as compared to 12.6 percent statewide. The median household income for the county is $35,644.

Rowe said the outpouring of support from volunteers and nonprofits has been overwhelming. But he does question FEMA's formula for federal assistance and thinks the guidelines should be re-examined.

“Apparently, because of the population of the state of Illinois, our damage claim didn’t meet the threshold of a state of our population size,’’ he said in an email. “Obviously, Chicago is the vast bulk of our population, and if Chicago were removed from the population requirement, we would be more of a rural state and would definitely have qualified. Or looking at in differently, if the same tornado had torn through Chicago, obviously we would have hit the threshold of damages.’’

He added, “If we were ‘Harrisburg, Arkansas’ instead of Harrisburg, Illinois, I’m sure we would have gotten some federal assistance.  Why should there be any difference?’’

Communities need to assess their risk

Louise Comfort, director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh, said that while FEMA does have strict guidelines for federal disaster declarations, the pattern has been unequal — and reflects not only the political process but also the nation’s current budget pressures.

“It isn’t just the people of Harrisburg,’’ she said. “It’s going to be the people in any small community that is struck by whatever unexpected, unlikely event. The larger question is, how can we share the responsibility for these events — and what should the federal investment be?’’

Comfort said there has been an effort to reduce the number of federally declared disaster declarations for relatively small disasters.

“While this tornado was devastating for the people of Harrisburg, it was only the people of Harrisburg. If you look at it in terms of a national event, it’s not like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Irene. It’s not the Texas wildfires, and so what FEMA — which is already short of money — is trying to do is to establish some kind of national standards for declarations of disaster,’’ she said. “The expectations is that state and local community resources — and businesses — would step in and help out. But people have gotten used to federal declarations of disasters so they feel cheated when they don’t get it.’’

Comfort said that disasters expose the economic disparity that exists in communities.

“Real people are suffering,’’ she said. “They have lost their homes, have lost their businesses. Have lost their jobs. And what are the resources that are available?”

She said the question is how a society will pay for such losses.

“Is it a loss that should be paid by all of the rest of the taxpayers in the U.S.? If you spread it over 300 million people, that’s going to help out Harrisburg, but when you have really divisive party politics where you have all of the Republican congressmen saying, ‘We will not pass any taxes. There will be no increase in taxes.’ Where are you going to get the money? It’s one thing that I will not vote for taxes and then to turn around and say the federal government has to help out in disaster assistance when there isn’t any money. That’s literally the dilemma.”

Comfort said that given FEMA’s budget constraints it’s probably holding the line on meeting its standards. In the case of Harrisburg, Comfort wonders if Obama was being ultra-careful not to show favoritism to his home state.

“Communities need to assess their risk, look at the resources available, educate their people. Every household needs to look at flood plains, or tornadoes,” she said. “There is an element of local responsibility that needs to be taken. In all too many cases that’s been missing, and we can no longer afford that.”

Robert Koenig, the Beacon’s Washington correspondent, also contributed to this story.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.