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.
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.’”