Illinois to recalculate storm damage cost for FEMA

Thursday, March 15, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given Illinois more time to recalculate the tornado damage to southern parts of the state to bolster its push to reverse the denial of aid, Sen. Dick Durbin said on Wednesday.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate made the concession after meeting with representatives of Illinois' congressional delegation led by Durbin, who had called FEMA's withholding of aid in the wake of the Feb. 29 storm hasty, unacceptable and "out of touch with reality."

Last weekend, FEMA announced that insurance, charities and state money could cover costs linked to the storm that tore through five southern Illinois counties and pounded Harrisburg, where seven people were killed. The twister also destroyed 98 homes and severely damaged 31 others in the town of roughly 9,000.

FEMA also denied disaster aid to residents in several southern and northern Missouri counties hit by the storms. Aid was approved for Indiana and Kentucky communities that sustained damage during the same week.

Durbin told reporters after meeting with Fugate that FEMA made their determination using an incomplete tally of damage estimates gathered five days after the storms -- too soon to get a true hold on the devastation or other special factors, including the area's pronounced joblessness and poverty.

"Perhaps if they had come a few days later (to calculate the damage), it would have been a different conclusion," Durbin said, noting that at the time of the calculations "a lot of devastation was still unresolved."

"They didn't come up with all the information in a timely way. We're going to take care of that now," Durbin added. Within days, "we're going to give more information to FEMA, and I can tell you that administrator Fugate was open to it."

Durbin said the exact amount of storm-related damage remains elusive, "but it's in the millions of dollars."

FEMA has said its decision last Saturday not to provide federal funds was based on a various factors -- such as how much homeowners' insurance would cover, the state's size and its ability to take care of those affected -- and not simply on whether there was serious damage in Harrisburg. The assessment included volunteer and charity resources.

In Harrisburg on Wednesday, Mayor Eric Gregg called FEMA's gift of more time for damage assessment "a godsend for us" as more tornado damage still was being spotted in buildings, even two weeks after the storms.

"This is huge for us to go in and do what we need to do. It gives us a chance," he said from the Saline County city where the storm harmed "hundreds and hundreds of homes -- everything from slightly damaged to gone, literally wiped off the city map."

Illinois' Emergency Management Agency has said that 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.

A federal disaster declaration would have made people 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, IEMA said.

The state also is asking FEMA for funding to help local governments cover some of their expenses in recovering from the storm, including repairs to tornado-damaged infrastructure and overtime costs of emergency personnel.

Local officials couldn't immediately provide a dollar figure for their losses.

"We have seen, unfortunately, devastating damage in the poorest part of our state and poorest part of Harrisburg, for that matter," Gov. Pat Quinn said Wednesday in Chicago. "We'll provide every ounce of information that we can summon in order to help this application."

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Associated Press Writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.

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