GIFFORD — "Not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant the implementation of the public assistance program."
So goes the letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to state officials, denying their request to reimburse part of what local governments spent on cleaning and repairing tornado-ravaged towns in Illinois.
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At the North Forty bar (with its southern wall bowing in and pipes recently frozen due to a gaping hole in the back, in a building that will be coming down sometime, but not too soon because the owner still has to settle with his insurance company), a man asked:
"I just wonder, what's it take to qualify?"
That man, Dana Cler, described his reaction to hearing FEMA's denial of the state's request. Like a dog cocking his head this way and that way: "What?! What?!"
He and Mike Swinney, the bar's owner, laughed, but it's clear frustration is mounting in the little town where the bank windows are painted with sayings like "Gifford Proud" and everyone goes to Bibb's for the fried fish sandwiches on Fridays.
"I don't understand what their whole job is — FEMA. What are they here to do?" said Swinney, whose house was destroyed. Later this year he plans to rebuild his bar across the street in an empty lot. And he'll rebuild his house. Right now he's living in Rantoul.
"We give all this money to foreign countries and stuff and ... we're basically surviving on well water. It's not treated at all. It's coming out brown. We're used to well water here, it's not a big deal," Swinney said with a chuckle. "But when customers come in asking for water and they're not used to it, they're like, this ain't good."
FEMA notified the state Thursday that its request for public assistance was denied. According to the state, the costs to local governments totaled more than $6.1 million, but that amount fell short of the federal threshold for Illinois of $17.8 million. The threshold 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, state officials said. By Friday morning, many Gifford residents had heard the news.
Since the storm, new utility poles have been erected. Broken limbs have been cleared. Tarps and plywood cover exposed roofs. Fundraisers have brought in about $800,000 for the town, and area residents like Bev Heiden have nothing but praise for local government officials, businesses like the Gifford State Bank and volunteers who have offered to help rebuild the town.
But the challenges are great, Heiden acknowledged, such as the damaged water tower and the prospect that local government agencies will lose tax dollars as properties are reassessed.
And there are the little annoyances that add to their frustrations.
Heiden recently received a call from a collection agency warning her that if she doesn't pay for her modem (her house was destroyed) it would be reported to a credit bureau.
She's remaining upbeat.
"We still have a lot to be thankful for," Heiden said.
Having recently received a building permit and with a contractor lined up, she will start to rebuild her home as soon as there's a break in the weather.
Heiden said she fully supports Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to appeal FEMA's decision.
Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said the state has 30 days from the date of letter (Jan. 9) to file the appeal.
"I think our senators and congressmen need to push for it too," Heiden added.
"If they denied the village of Gifford, I'm not feeling good about this," Cler said about his own application.
Cler lives behind Robin's Body Shop and during the Nov. 17 storm a chunk of the body shop's facade blew off and smashed into his '99 Buick Park Avenue. After the estimate came in ($4,673.68 from none other than Robin's Body Shop), Cler checked his insurance policy and, finding himself underinsured, he figured he'd apply for FEMA assistance to help cover the cost to repair the car.
"I'm disappointed they're not helping," said Lorraine Buenting of Gifford, who said she and her husband received a letter denying them assistance as well. In addition to dealing with the loss of their home (they had completed a $75,000 remodel and addition to the home in the summer) and settling with their insurance company, the Buentings also have had to relocate their tax service business, PABCO. Usually this time of year, their phone is ringing all day long. Because of the storm, they had to relocate to a new building on the other side of Gifford and the new building is not serviced by their previous phone company. They're still waiting to get their old phone number released to their new phone company.
Behind the grill of his restaurant, Bibb's, Lorin Schluter cursed politicians and the federal agency. But like Heiden, he praised the town's residents and their strength the endure.
"We'll survive one way or another," he said.
What they're saying in Gifford
"They knew we wouldn't qualify (for reimbursement based on the federal formula). ... I'd call balderdash. ... They knew it all along. They came here for photo opps, that was all," said Mike Boe of politicians and FEMA employees. Boe rode out the storm in an interior washroom when a tree fell on his house.
"I was like a dog cocking my head this way and that way. What? What? ... What's it take to qualify?" said Dana Cler, who applied for assistance to help pay for repairs to his damaged car. "If they denied the village of Gifford, I'm not feeling good about this," he said about his own application with FEMA.
"I'm very disappointed. There were so many people that came into town to help. It was such a humbling experience. It's just so disappointing. Everybody did so much, so fast. It's like you almost get penalized for doing the right thing," said Bev Heiden of Gifford.
"It's a snub of the nose," said Lorin Schluter, owner of Bibb's restaurant, who cursed politicians. Later, he added: "We'll survive one way or another."