News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

April 19, 2014

Inconsistent help: FEMA’s disaster decisions frustrate state, local leaders

KOKOMO — 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 Pat Quinn has called FEMA’s disaster assessment process outdated and biased against small communities.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 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.

FEMA’s discretion

The last time FEMA granted an Indiana request for help was when a tornado struck the small town of Henryville in 2012, killing one resident and injuring others.

The town and Clark County sustained significant damage, though not as much as other Indiana communities experienced in the November 2013 storm. But the tornado was part of a lethal wave of storms that ripped across the Midwest and South, killing 40 people in five states — including 13 in Indiana. FEMA provided just over $5 million in public and individual assistance to communities in and around Henryville.

Hill said FEMA felt pressure from the high-profile event and made a subjective decision to offer assistance. FEMA could have exercised similar discretion, he noted, to help Kokomo and other communities after the November 2013 tornadoes.

“I can’t get in the head of FEMA,” he said. “I don’t know why they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to help Indiana.’”

FEMA didn’t respond directly to Hill’s comments. But more requests for disaster declarations are denied than granted in most states, according to the agency’s website.

FEMA also acknowledges that part of its decision-making involves how much states and communities can provide on their own, without federal help.

In denying Indiana’s three most recent requests, the agency found damage from floods, tornadoes and the winter storm was “within the capabilities of the state and its affected local governments to recover from,” Ringsdorf, the FEMA spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

FEMA also takes into account resources offered by nonprofits, churches and religious groups, as well as private business, she noted.

Hill said two factors may have affected the agency’s thinking — Indiana’s nearly $2 billion budget surplus, and its Disaster Relief Fund, supported by a sales tax on fireworks.

The state disaster fund grants up to $5,000 to individuals. But it was depleted after the April 2013 floods.

Sources of help

FEMA officials note individuals harmed by a disaster can still seek low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. But a property owner or business owner must be credit-worthy to apply.

In Howard County, 17 people have applied for an SBA loan to rebuild or repair their homes, and only 2 have been approved, said Janice Hart, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

“Kokomo needs FEMA’s help” Hart said. “There are a lot of people in this community who live paycheck to paycheck. Just one disaster can ruin their lives.”

In January, Illinois’ U.S. senators, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin, filed legislation to change how FEMA declares disasters. It came after FEMA denied aid for southern Illinois communities hit by the November storms that damaged Indiana.

The senators say FEMA’s decision-making is biased against small towns. The bill would require FEMA to adopt more specific metrics for determining who needs help. And it would require FEMA to consider local economic factors, such as a community’s poverty and unemployment rate, and the history of weather-related disasters. Their bill has been assigned to a committee.

For victims like Pamela Jackson, the best hope are long-term Disaster Recovery Committees set up in Kokomo and other communities. The committees — of churches and non-profit groups — distribute money from donations and coordinate resources to serve those who still need help.

“I don’t know what I’d do without that help,” she said. “I guess just be thankful for all the people who did step up when FEMA didn’t.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com and follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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