Updated: Revision sought for FEMA rules

WASHINGTON — Legislation seeking changes in the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency awards benefits for public assistance and for individuals after natural disasters will start in a committee on which U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, are members.

Davis is the chief sponsor of the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014 (HR3925), which will start in the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. All FEMA-related legislation is assigned to the committee, said Davis spokesman Andrew Flach.

The legislation was introduced after FEMA's decision earlier this month to deny more than $6 million in public assistance to Illinois governments following a series of tornadoes on Nov. 17, including twisters that ripped through Gifford in Champaign County and rural areas of Vermilion and Douglas counties. The most significant damage, however, was in Washington, near Peoria in Tazewell County.

"This is an opportunity for us to correct a longstanding issue with how FEMA deals with public assistance declarations," Davis said. "This isn't a new thing for me. I toured the devastation in Harrisburg two years ago with Congressman (John) Shimkus. But to see disasters that go through states like Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky all at the same time and for Illinois to be the only one not eligible for public assistance because of the formula just tells me that it has to be changed.

"It's skewed against states like Illinois that are population-heavy but when you look at the population disbursement, it's punitive to areas outside of the Chicago metropolitan area."

Davis said changing the formula to help downstate Illinois doesn't mean that it would have to hurt other areas.

"Nobody's losing anything. It would just be a fairer process. An urban area like Chicago is going to be able to hit the disaster declaration marks in the old formula and because of its population they'll still be able to make their case with this. It just makes it a much fairer case statewide. It's a better process that isn't going to penalize and punish the rural areas which make up most of Illinois."

Davis said he didn't know if other parts of the United States had complaints about the FEMA formula.

"The fact remains that Illinois, even if it doesn't affect any other state in the nation, shouldn't be penalized because of an antiquated formula that FEMA has been using," he said.

In Champaign County, FEMA's decision meant the loss about $452,962 in public assistance reimbursement. The village of Gifford sought $219,765. Other agencies and governments seeking reimbursement included the Eastern Illinois Electric Cooperative ($80,000), the city of Champaign ($61,793), Compromise Township ($31,496), the county highway department ($29,646), the Champaign County sheriff's office ($19,752), the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency ($7,062), the Longview Fire Department ($2,139) and the University of Illinois Police Department ($1,309).

Douglas County agencies had $103,016 in requested public assistance, and Vermilion County agencies sought $166,080.

Gifford and Vermilion and Douglas counties all are in Shimkus' 15th Congressional District. His large area also includes Brookport and New Minden, which were heavily damaged during the tornado outbreak.

"Downstate Illinois is disadvantaged when disasters strike, due to our population upstate," Shimkus said. "This legislation helps to address that problem and would allow communities like Gifford and Brookport, who were hit by tornadoes last year, a chance to be eligible for FEMA public assistance. A million dollars to Chicago may not matter much, but it does to my constituents."

FEMA rejected Illinois' request for public assistance because it fell short of the federal threshold for Illinois of $17.8 million. That target is based on the state's population multiplied by $1.35. State officials say they intend to appeal the FEMA decision.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk said they too have asked FEMA to review its formula for awarding public assistance to large-population states like Illinois.

Other Illinois House members sponsoring the legislation include Reps. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria; Adam Kinzinger, R-Manteno; and Bll Enyart, D-Belleville.

Their legislation, the representatives said, would provide more certainty to states and small communities affected by disasters by giving FEMA a clearer, more substantive formula when evaluating disaster areas. This bill assigns a specific weight to each of the factors already used by FEMA, and adds other economic factors for the agency to consider when determining whether a disaster area should receive federal assistance.

"This bipartisan effort will help ensure downstate Illinois communities are competing on a level playing field with other communities across the country when it comes to qualifying for the FEMA support they need to recover from natural disasters," Bustos said.

Davis' office provided a formula breakdown for public assistance, as specified in the legislation, as well as a description of the factors currently used by FEMA:

— estimated cost of the assistance (10 percent). Currently, this is the key component to FEMA's declaration process, calculated at $1.35 times the state population. This legislation will make it less of a factor by weighing it significantly lower than localized impacts.

— localized impacts (40 percent). The legislation would put greater weight on the damage assessment on a specific area, as opposed to statewide.

— insurance coverage in force (10 percent). Currently, FEMA deducts the amount of insurance that should be held by a government and non-profits from the total eligible amount.

— hazard mitigation (10 percent). If the cost of damage falls short of the cost of assistance threshold due to mitigation measures that lessened the disaster's impact, FEMA will take this into consideration by doing a cost-benefit analysis.

— recent multiple disasters (10 percent). FEMA would take any disasters occurring within the previous 12 months into consideration and evaluate the funds that the state has committed and their impact on the state and its residents.

— programs of other federal assistance (10 percent). FEMA would take into consideration whether or not other agencies will be contributing.

— other economic circumstances (10 percent). Currently these are factors not considered by FEMA. This legislation would require FEMA to consider the local assessable tax base and local sales tax, the median income in comparison to the state, the poverty rate in comparison to the state, and the unemployment rate of the state in comparison to the national rate.

The formula breakdown for individual assistance also would be changed, Davis said, although FEMA is providing individual assistance to the Illinois tornado victims.

"Once we look at a process, if we find a fairer formula for individual assistance too, we're going to ask that it be changed also. It may not have impacted anyone in this particular disaster so that assistance was available. But that doesn't mean that the formula might not impact another town in the future," he said. "We want to head that off."

The new individual assistance formula would be based on:

— concentration of damages — 20 percent;

— trauma — 20 percent;

— special populations — 20 percent;

— voluntary agency assistance — 10 percent;

— insurance — 20 percent;

— average amount of individual assistance by state — 5 percent;

— economic declarations — 5 percent.

The House bill mirrors legislation introduced by Kirk and Durbin in 2012 but would be retroactive to include storms that occurred in 2013.

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bb wrote on January 23, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Good intentions.  But as it is the per-capita formula based on state population implies states are expected to pick up the slack when the threshold isn't met.  Where is the Illinois disaster relief program to assist these public agencies?  It could be based on a county per-capita or else by agency percentage of their budget.