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Stung by FEMA denial of Illinois aid, senators propose changing disaster formula

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - WASHINGTON — Shocked that the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied disaster aid to tornado-struck Illinois counties, the state’s two U.S. senators are jointly sponsoring a bill they say would make such decisions fairer and more predictable.

The “Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act” would require FEMA to weigh specified factors in a standardized way when they determine eligibility for public or private disaster aid. It would also insist that FEMA take local economic factors into consideration in making such decisions.

“After seeing firsthand the devastation in Harrisburg and Ridgway, I realized if these towns don’t qualify for federal assistance, something is wrong,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said, “FEMA's methodology for determining a federal disaster declaration is biased against disasters in larger states.”

Durbin and Kirk were among the Illinois lawmakers who urged the state to appeal FEMA’s decision after the agency denied federal disaster assistance to five counties in southern Illinois that were struck by tornadoes and severe storms at the end of February — including the twister that killed seven people in Harrisburg.

But FEMA, after considering a revised application from Illinois officals for public disaster aid, quickly rejected that appeal — even though such disaster aid was granted to Indiana, Kentucky and other states. Missouri also was denied aid in the wake of tornadoes that struck Branson and other parts of the state.

Illinois officials and lawmakers questioned FEMA's decision, given that state and federal assessment teams had found that 104 homes were destroyed, 50 suffered major damage and 276 were seriously damaged in the five Illinois counties. But FEMA officials said they had followed a specific formula, defined by law and federal regulations, in assessing whether the damage qualified for federal aid.

Later, the Beacon reported that the assessment formulas used by FEMA related to the state’s entire population — so big states like Illinois (population 12.9 million) are at a disadvantage.

“The misfortune of those five counties in Illinois is that they happen to be in a state with a large population,” said Richard Sylves, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who researches national disaster policy. He said a “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.”

In a Senate speech on Thursday, Durbin agreed with the assessment that “the damage that happened in Southern Illinois — if it had happened across the river in Indiana, or in Kentucky or in Missouri — it would have been a federal disaster.”

Holding up a poster-sized photo of damage in Harrisburg, Durbin warned senators that “you could find that a devastating natural disaster does not qualify for federal assistance simple because of the population of your state. I don’t think that’s a fair metric.”

Durbin, Kirk want fairer FEMA formula

The reason that states with populations of more than 10 million people must sustain a higher level of damage than smaller states to qualify for federal disaster aid is the assumption that big states have larger tax bases and resources to respond to the damage.

Whle FEMA declines to reveal its exact formulas for determining disaster declarations, the agency confirms that it considers six factors to determine eligibility. However, FEMA won’t discuss the relative weight given to each factor, which may fluctuate depending on the disaster.

In their bipartisan legislation, Durbin and Kirk would require FEMA to go beyond the state's population and also take into consideration local economic factors including: the local assessable tax base, the local poverty rate (as compared to the statewide rate), and the median income in comparison to the state as a whole.

The legislation also would assign specific weight to the list of factors that FEMA must consider in assessing disaster damage and impact. Durbin asserted that assigning a specific value to those factors — for example, the 40 percent weight given to “localized impacts” of a disaster for the public assistance aid — “will ensure that damage to any specific community weighs more than just the state’s population.”

FEMA makes recommendations for federal disaster declarations allowing individuals, businesses and local governments to apply for federal grants or loans. Public assistance funding provides aid to local and state governments for unusual costs for response and recovery to the disaster, including emergency work, debris removal from public roads, and repair and replacement of disaster-damaged public facilities.

The seven factors that Durbin and Kirk propose, and the weight (in percentage) given to each factor, for public assistance are:

  1. Estimated cost of the assistance, 10 percent
  2. Localized impacts, 40 percent
  3. Insurance coverage in force, 10 percent
  4. Hazard mitigation, 10 percent
  5. Recent multiple disasters, 10 percent
  6. Other federal assistance, 10 percent
  7. Economic considerations, 10 percent

Individual assistance funding provides assistance to individuals and businesses to help with temporary housing, home repairs or replacement and other disaster-related expenses. The factors that the Illinois senators suggest be considered for such aid are:

  1. Concentration of damages, 20 percent
  2. Trauma, 20 percent
  3. Special populations, 20 percent
  4. Voluntary agency assistance, 10 percent
  5. Insurance, 20 percent
  6. Average of individual assistance, 5 percent
  7. Economic considerations, 5 percent

“This common-sense legislation revises FEMA's criteria to better reflect the reality that communities face as they rebuild and recover from tragedy,” said a spokesman for Kirk, who is still recovering in Chicago from a stroke suffered in January.
Durbin said he and Kirk agree that “it is time to fix the metrics FEMA uses to determine which communities deserve disaster assistance. Our legislation will put some fairness back into the system so that people in Illinois are not unfairly punished for living in a populous state.”