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.