Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

State News

April 18, 2014

FEMA's disaster decisions frustrate leaders

(Continued)

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.

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