Relief Agencies Wait for Cue From FEMA

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When the floodwaters engulfed communities in Iowa residents thought they would immediately be given food, water, shelter and other assistance. But Indiana Public Broadcasting's Marianne Holland finds that before the Red Cross and other relief workers can provide that assistance, an area needs to be declared a federal disaster area.


The storms that rolled through the Midwest over the last few weeks have led authorities to officially declare disaster areas in several places. What exactly do those declarations accomplish?

Marianne Holland of Indiana Public Broadcasting looked into the aftermath of one day last weekend when Indiana endured tornadoes and 10 inches of rain. Here's her report.

MARIANNE HOLLAND: On the same night the storms hit central Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels declared 41 counties disaster areas. Many people thought that meant their lives would quickly return to normal, with money for food and housing in their hands fast. But as people like Franklin resident Anthony Falomero(ph) are finding out, it's not that simple.

Mr. ANTHONY FALOMERO: I really don't even think the government realizes the magnitude of what's going on down here. I really - I don't see people on the ground. I mean, a lot of people lost their cars, so even transportation back and forth to this shelter, which is probably, you know, eight to 10 miles away from the furthest place in Franklin, people just can't get back and forth to the shelter.

HOLLAND: Indiana Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Erickson says a disaster declaration made by the governor does little in terms of providing immediate relief.

Mr. JOHN ERICKSON (Indiana Department of Homeland Security): When the disaster declaration is made by Governor Daniels and he designates certain counties in a disaster declaration, and then he asks FEMA, then we wait to see what their determination is.

HOLLAND: Only if President Bush decides against declaring a disaster and activating FEMA does the state face tapping its small disaster relief fund. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, the federal government did make a disaster declaration. But that applied only to emergency commodities, things like food and water distribution. 11 American Red Cross shelters were opened like this one at the Community Church of Greenwood just south of Indianapolis.

Red Cross worker Jim Farb(ph) explains that like the state, Red Cross workers wait to distribute relief money until a FEMA declaration is made. But he says they do what they can in the meantime.

Mr. JIM FARB (Volunteer): The community has donated a humongous amount of clothing. They can come in here, have a shower. We have a regular supply of breakfast, dinner and supper. They can come in here and eat. As the Red Cross, we are set up with 30 beds in our shelter, which they can stay overnight.

HOLLAND: Late Wednesday night, President Bush signed a disaster declaration for some of Indiana's hardest hit areas. The action triggers the release of FEMA money for home repairs and temporary shelter, as well as food stamps for people who don't normally qualify. But while people in Indiana go about the work of trying to recover what they've lost, government workers in the town of Franklin will be doing the same. When that town flooded, offices for the police, garbage collection and welfare also found themselves under water, leaving those employees trying to both deliver services and do their own cleanup at the same time.

For NPR News, I'm Marianne Holland in Indianapolis.

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