Looking at the destruction in his southern Illinois town, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg couldn’t understand why federal officials turned down a plea to financially help local homeowners. Nearly a hundred homes are now piles of debris, destroyed by last month’s deadly tornado.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has decided that homeowners’ insurance, local charities and state funds could cover those costs. The storm ripped through the town and surrounding Saline County on Feb. 29, destroying 98 homes and severely damaging 31 others. Seven people were killed.
“We just feel very strongly that our people need help,” Gregg said. “Even those that had homeowners insurance, what we’re finding is that, OK, they come in, they’ll pay for certain things, but the homeowners are going to be out thousands of dollars dealing with this catastrophe.”
FEMA also denied disaster aid to residents in several southern and northern Missouri counties hit by the storms, yet aid was approved for homeowners in parts of Indiana and Kentucky.
FEMA’s decision not to provide disaster help for homeowners in Illinois was based on a range of factors, not simply on whether there was serious damage in Harrisburg, spokesman Mark Peterson said. Among those factors were how much homeowners’ insurance would cover, the state’s size and its ability to take care of those affected. The assessment included volunteer and charity resources.
“Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that the damage was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments and voluntary agencies,” FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate wrote to Gov. Pat Quinn in a letter.
Quinn said that state officials have begun putting together the appeal.
“FEMA underestimated the impact this deadly tornado had on small towns like Harrisburg and Ridgway,” Quinn said, adding that he’d spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Even if the state had enough money to cover the home damage, it doesn’t have a program or the authority to help individual homeowners or renters the way FEMA could, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said.
With a federal disaster declaration, people would be eligible for grants to help with home repairs, temporary housing, replacing personal and household items, crisis counseling and legal services — some of which aren’t covered by homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, Thompson said.
“We just really don’t have anything at the state level that compares to that,” she said. The state has a program for people and businesses to get low-interest loans, but “some people are not going to qualify for loans but still have needs,” she added.
Gregg and others in Harrisburg are optimistic that the FEMA appeal, supported by Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, would convince the federal agency to reconsider. Durbin’s office said the senator and other lawmakers planned to meet with FEMA administrator Craig.
The tornado obliterated entire blocks and flattened businesses across Harrisburg. It was part of a storm system that ripped across an area stretching from Kansas and Missouri to Kentucky and Tennessee that day, followed two days later by storms that swept through areas from Indiana to Alabama.
Harrisburg Fire Chief Bill Summers surveyed the damage with FEMA officials last week and said that he surprised the aid was denied.
“We thought we had enough damage that we would pass,” he said.
Town residents also are unhappy, and some believe FEMA’s decision penalizes Harrisburg at least in part because churches, charities and individuals quickly pitched in to help.
“I personally think that you can never have too much help to clean up a disaster,” said Debra Threet, whose home survived but said her husband’s co-worker who lost her home. “I’m not happy with it, no.”
Plus, it may be too soon for residents to separate the material destruction on which FEMA bases its decisions from the death of friends and family, said Harrisburg resident Darrell Osman, whose 75-year-old mother, Mary, was killed when the tornado hit her home.
“We’re a small community. I think it’s probably tough for some people to separate those two,” Osman said.
The state also is asking FEMA for funding to help local governments cover some of their expenses in recovering from the storm. Local officials couldn’t immediately provide a dollar figure for their losses so far, but Summers said the damage to local infrastructure, including to a water plant, was fairly serious.
FEMA is still considering that request, which involves criteria more straightforward than those for home damage, said Peterson, the FEMA spokesman. For example, there must be at least $12 million in expenses, which could include paying those who responded to the disaster or helped clean up the damage, or to repair damage to public buildings other infrastructure.
FEMA is assessing those costs this week to determine if Illinois qualifies for public assistance.