FEMA denies appeal for tornado aid to Illinois town

Sammy Caiola

In the wake of the tornado, rated an E4, Gov. Pat Quinn asked FEMA to help with damage assessment on the ground in Harrisburg. Quinn submitted a request for federal funding on March 7, but it was denied three days later, said Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Quinn appealed the decision, but it was denied last Wednesday.

FEMA spokesperson Sandy Jasmund said the damage in Illinois was not severe enough to warrant their assistance since other aid agencies were already in Harrisburg and there was a number of people covered by insurance.

Harrisburg residents, such as Mona Crim, expressed disappointment with FEMA’s decision. Crim is the director of the Christian Community Compassion Center in Harrisburg, which also serves as a homeless shelter and food pantry and has provided assistance to tornado victims.

“There are a lot of people that don’t have insurance that were affected by this storm. They don’t have the money to rebuild,” Crim said. “Our plea now is for different communities to send building materials. It’s disappointing, but we’re pulling things up by our boot strings.”

After the storm, FEMA joined state and local officials for a preliminary damage assessment and then decided not to provide federal assistance based on the guidelines in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, Jasmund said.

“It’s based on facts,” she said. “They felt that when looking at the damages, it was not beyond what the local and state government could provide along with the voluntary organizations.”

There are currently two FEMA employees assisting state officials in Harrisburg, Jasmund said, one helping disabled victims and the other working with local volunteer organizations. They will stay in Harrisburg as long as they are needed, Jasmund said.

However, some directly involved in the recovery said they feel the officials’ presence isn’t enough. Thompson said her organization supported Quinn’s appeal by providing documentation of damage after the initial denial. Last week, IEMA was coordinating the delivery of resources, equipment and personnel to the Harrisburg area, Thompson said.

“Obviously we’re disappointed because we see the need for the types of federal assistance that are available only through FEMA,” she said. “We certainly would have liked to have seen that approved. In the meantime, we’re not giving up on any hopes of helping the people.”

If FEMA did assist, it would be able to provide individuals with grants to cover temporary housing, medical bills, funeral arrangements and other post-disaster expenses, Thompson said. After the denial from FEMA, Quinn requested a Disaster Declaration for Illinois from the United States Small Business Administration. The declaration was issued March 22, and the administration opened an office in Harrisburg the next day, said Jack Camp, an SBA spokesman.

The SBA can provide low-interest loans for renters, homeowners and businesses, Camp said. Individuals can apply for loans by visiting the office, calling or completing a form online. Thompson said the people who are not eligible for SBA loans would benefit from FEMA grants, which do not have to be paid back like the SBA loans.

In addition to the SBA money, Harrisburg has received help from volunteer organizations who are collecting donations, rebuilding homes and providing shelter for those made homeless by the storm. The high level of volunteer activity is one of many reasons why FEMA denied Quinn’s request, Jasmund said.

But Dave Skoblar, director of a national nonprofit called Project 195 that has sent over 200 volunteers to Harrisburg so far, said FEMA “threw up its hands” on this project.

“Their initial story that we have enough volunteers is nonsense,” Skoblar said. “There’s never enough volunteers. With the FEMA budget constraints, it would not be financially smart for them to drain their account in March. They’re being pragmatic, which is no relief to anyone at all, especially in Harrisburg.”

Jasmund said FEMA was “not the team” but only “part of the team” managing the Harrisburg recovery, which she said was progressing well.

“Everything went according to local responding first,” she said. “We’re working together at the state and local level.”

Still, Crim said tornado victims are “just trying to get by” and that the local community is holding nightly informational meetings to keep everyone on the same page as they rebuild their town.

“I just want people that are not here to know that it is time for them to be praying for Harrisburg and to send money and help,” Crim said. “That’s what we need.”

[email protected]northwestern.edu

Marshall Cohen contributed reporting.