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Floyd County

April 20, 2014

FEMA’s disaster decisions frustrate state, local leaders

Henryville last place in Indiana to get assistance after tornadoes

KOKOMO, Ind. — Pamela Jackson thought she was lucky to escape harm as a tornado bore down on her neighborhood last November. She huddled in a bathroom with her two disabled sons, critically ill husband and six other family members as the twister blew out windows and tore the roof off her house. Hers was one of scores of homes and businesses in Howard County that were damaged or demolished by the storm.

Five months later, Jackson is still struggling. She’s depleted the family savings on repairs and temporary housing. She’s exhausted herself from fighting her insurance company over a botched roof replacement that left her home uninhabitable from water damage. Though embarrassed to ask for help, she’s turned to a charity for assistance and now lives in a hotel.

“I try to focus on what we have and not what we’ve lost,” Jackson said. “But how can anyone think this wasn’t a disaster?”

It’s a question that local and state officials have asked repeatedly since the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down their request for help. 

FEMA denied the state’s request to declare a “major disaster” after tornadoes swept Indiana last November, despite millions of dollars in damages. A declaration would have cleared the way for federal dollars to those hit the hardest.

The decision prompted protests from Indiana’s Congressional delegation, and it stoked growing frustrations with FEMA, especially in the Midwest. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn has called FEMA’s disaster assessment process outdated and biased against small communities. Both Illinois senators have called on the agency to be more transparent in decision-making and to more carefully consider extenuating factors around communities’ requests for help.

A bitter blow

For Kokomo and Howard County, FEMA’s denial of post-tornado help was a bitter blow. FEMA had already denied a request after floods in April 2013 caused more than $17 million in damage in the community.

Just weeks after it turned down the tornado-related request, FEMA said no to a plea for help covering more than $9 million in costs from a massive winter storm that shut down half the state — including Kokomo — for a week. That decision has been appealed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman was surprised by the three strikes. He saw the extensive paperwork that officials compiled to document the damage.

“You’d think somebody (at FEMA) would have said, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got to get these people some help,” Wyman said.

That sentiment has echoed in other communities around Indiana denied by FEMA. In the small city of Washington, where more than 100 homes were damaged or destroyed by the November tornado, Mayor Joe Wellman expected FEMA to come through.

“I was surprised they didn’t send us some kind of assistance,” Wellman said. “Maybe it worked against us that we that we did what needed to be done to clean up and help our own people without waiting for their help.”

John Hill, director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, is just as frustrated. His agency helps communities compile the data to make a case to FEMA for disaster assistance.

“It’s so subjective,” Hill said of FEMA’s decisions. “I’m dumbfounded by it.”

Complex decisions

If FEMA’s decision making is opaque, what does seem clear is how complicated the process can be. 

Each state’s governor must ask for disaster declarations that lead to two kinds of help: One provides grants to individuals like Pamela Jackson, whose lives are ravaged. The other reimburses local governments for costs such as removing debris and repairing damaged roads.

FEMA spends about $6 billion a year in disaster relief, from a $9.5 billion budget. In 2013, it issued 64 “major disaster” declarations, providing assistance after wildfires in Colorado, flooding in Alaska, and mudslides in North Carolina.

FEMA officials say they assess a number of factors to determine an event’s size and impact before deciding who gets help. Concentration of damage plays a role, as does the number of injuries and deaths. For aid to individuals and local governments, FEMA takes into account a community’s resources, and those of the state, to recover on its own. 

Cassie Ringsdorf, a FEMA spokeswoman, said in an email that federal law restricts the use of formulas or other objective standards as a sole basis for determining need. That leaves FEMA open to criticism that its decisions are unfair, inconsistent and hard to defend.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen Joe Donnelly asked FEMA officials to meet with Kokomo leaders to explain their repeated denials. Local leaders said they left the meeting feeling more confused — and angry.

“We never really got a good explanation for why three disasters in one year wasn’t enough to warrant some help,” Wyman said.

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