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 Pat Quinn has called FEMA’s disaster assessment process outdated and biased against small communities.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