Updated: State officials united in fighting FEMA rejection
SPRINGFIELD — Officials say they're united in trying to overturn a federal decision denying tornado assistance to local governments, including Gifford.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified state officials Thursday that it was rejecting a request to reimburse local governments for approximately $6.1 million in costs from the Nov. 17 tornado outbreak that caused damage in nine Illinois counties, almost all of them in central or southern Illinois.
Soon after the FEMA decision was announced, Gov. Pat Quinn said the state would appeal it.
"While we appreciate FEMA's partnership in helping individuals and businesses recover, I'm disappointed in this decision," Quinn said. "My administration will immediately work to develop a strong appeal that demonstrates how much this assistance is needed. The state of Illinois will continue doing everything necessary to help our hardest hit communities rebuild and recover from these historic tornadoes."
Among the areas hit during the Sunday afternoon tornado outbreak were Gifford in Champaign County, and areas of Douglas and Vermilion counties.
Local governments in Champaign County tallied $452,962 in tornado-related expenses, said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Vermilion County governments had $166,080 in expenses and Douglas County governments had $103,016 in tornado-related costs, she said.
Hardest-hit was Tazewell County near Peoria, which had $3.57 million in costs to local governments.
Costs that could be eligible for federal reimbursement include emergency protective measures, debris removal, and repair or replacement of government-owned facilities. In Champaign County, for example, it would include expenses such as overtime pay by the sheriff's office, and costs to area road districts and public works departments.
Gifford Mayor Derald Ackerman said he was unsure how much in expenses that the village had incurred aside from those covered by insurance.
"It was considerable. But hopefully they'll come through for us and we'll get all our expense covered," Ackerman said. "They're going to bat for us and that's about all we can hope for now."
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, whose district includes Gifford and areas of southern Illinois hit by tornadoes, said he would support the appeal.
"I am disappointed that the disaster declaration for public assistance was denied. I know that the affected communities had enormous expenses in cleaning up and getting basic services back up and running after the tornadoes," Shimkus said.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk also expressed disappointment.
"This was some of the worst storm damage I have ever seen," said Durbin. "While the individual assistance designation that the counties received just before Christmas will help families and businesses recover, a public assistance designation is desperately needed to help local governments rebuild the infrastructure that will make these communities whole again."
Kirk added, "Having seen firsthand the destruction that our state has suffered, and having met countless volunteers and families affected by these 24 tornadoes, those families and the hard working members of our community deserve the opportunity to rebuild and recover from the deadly storms. I fully support Gov. Quinn's appeal of this decision."
Quinn said that costs to local governments totaled more than $6.1 million, but that the total fell short of the federal threshold for Illinois of $17.8 million, which is based on the state's population multiplied by $1.35. The federal formula hurts the chances of aid for geographically large states with large urban centers like Illinois, officials said.
"A calculation of this nature really hurts us," said state Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, whose district includes Gifford. "Two of the three people in our state live in a six-county area. You take the area of Illinois with the least population and it's where the significant damage is. That math that they used to get to this decision does not favor a state with a large urban area that was unaffected. In the larger picture, I would hope the feds would take another look at that."
State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, who grew up in Gifford, said he was "disappointed, but I'm not ready to concede anything yet. This just means that we have more work to do."
Hays added that he believes the state's appeal could include a higher estimate of expenses incurred, plus other factors.
"I've been led to believe that the governor in his appeal will try to note that there are other impacts from the tornadoes — the winter weather conditions that have delayed debris from being cleaned up, that some of the communities are dealing with flood events from last April," said Hays. "I think he'll attempt to paint a larger picture that in addition to the tornadoes there have been other events in Illinois that are factors.
"And we're going to go through with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that everything that was applicable was considered."
Thompson, the IEMA spokeswoman, added, "We will be working on finding any additional information to help illustrate the critical needs for this assistance.
"We don't usually have 25 tornadoes in November and so the cleanup of that and any rebuilding is being delayed greatly because of the winter weather. And that will slow the recovery process and add to expenses. We're going to look at any other way to drive home how important this assistance is."