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When disaster strikes - like that recent mudslide near Seattle, ice storms in the South or devastating tornadoes in the Midwest - states often turn to the federal government for assistance. But Illinois officials say a formula the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses to determine whether states will receive money is unfair to communities in states with large populations.
NPR's Cheryl Corley explains.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's no question the weather's been brutal for some communities, including Washington, Illinois, a town of 15,000 in the central part of the state. When a tornado ripped through the area last November, three people died and more than a thousand homes were damaged.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I cannot believe we went through the winter we did and our...
CORLEY: Displaced residents recently filled the pews as they gathered for a recent town meeting at a local church. Some wore T-shirts with the slogan: Washington Strong. Linda and Jim Deaton say just before the winter tornado destroyed their home, they scooped up their two small dogs and ran for the basement.
JIM DEATON: You could hear the glass breaking, the boards, the big two-by-fours breaking, you could feel the impact.
LINDA DEATON: And when we came up from the basement and I looked out and just saw the devastation in my neighborhood, and I honestly thought all my neighbors were gone.
CORLEY: It's up to a state's governor to ask for disaster declarations and President Obama did declare nine Illinois counties ravaged by this tornado a federal disaster area. FEMA has given grants to individuals and families, but when it comes to federal money for reimbursing local governments for say, much of the cost for debris removal or repairing damaged roads, the answer has been, no.
Washington Mayor Gary Manier.
MAYOR GARY MANIER: When you look at a document and they say there's not enough devastation, my thing is, were you here? There wasn't 161 deaths like there was in Joplin, I understood all that, but picking up the pieces of a sticks for over 800 homes were inhabitable, 596 totally destroyed. It was pretty devastating.
CORLEY: Although FEMA denied public assistance funds for the November disaster, it did provide it for other areas last spring when there was extensive flooding in Illinois. FEMA decisions are based, in part, on a formula it uses to determine whether states and local governments can handle a disaster on their own. It's as simple equation: a state's population, for example, nearly 13 million in Illinois, is multiplied by a number the agency figures a state can pay for every resident before it needs the federal government to step in. This year, that number is $1.39 per resident.
Patti Thompson, with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, says if you do the math, the sum is typically a cost of damages threshold a state must first meet
PATTI THOMPSON: And for the state of Illinois, that currently is a little over $17.8 million.
CORLEY: When it appealed its first rejection, Illinois officials told FEMA they expected the damage expenses for the state would reach $21 million. Again, Washington Mayor Manier.
MANIER: I thought it was a slam dunk. I thought it was a done deal.
CORLEY: But FEMA's assessment was much lower, just $7 million, nowhere near the threshold.
But if this town was not in Illinois but in Nebraska, with a population fewer than two million, FEMA would likely have approved requests for public assistance funds since the threshold there would have been one-eighth of what it is in Illinois.
Illinois Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin say that type of disparity is just wrong and have reintroduced legislation to address it. Durbin first talked about it on the Senate floor two years ago.
DICK DURBIN: Tomorrow, I say to my colleagues, it could be your state. You could find out that a devastating natural disaster does not qualify for federal disaster assistance simply because of the population of your state.
CORLEY: The bill, which is now in committee, puts less emphasis on the state's population and assigns specific values to the economic circumstances of the affected area.
But here's a twist to the change the formula argument: After FEMA said no twice, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn told the communities hit hard by the tornado that the state will instead use $45 million in capital and emergency funds to help them.
GOVERNOR PATRICK QUINN: We're not going to look at that money in a bank vault when we have a natural disaster that caused great harm to so many people, so many families. So many homes were demolished here. You know, we got to do something.
CORLEY: And that, some would argue, proves FEMA's formula is correct, that states with communities big and small can find the resources to take care of their own in the wake of a disaster.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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