FEMA rebuffs Illinois towns recovering from November tornadoes

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Two months later, the debris from the freak November tornadoes that leveled entire neighborhoods in Washington linger, with no clear indication of who will pick up the tab for the remaining clean-up.

DAY ONE: Manier answers questions about the clean-up after the storms.

“A lot of the debris is behind the homes,” Washington Mayor Gary Manier told Illinois Watchdog. “We really gotta get that out of there before we start seeing the spring rains, or we’re just going to complicate the problem and have flooding.”

Manier has tried to get federal help for his town, but has so far been rebuffed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has turned down Illinois’ request for $5.1 million to help Washington and cities in nine counties, pay to fix what the November tornadoes destroyed.

The denial is the fifth time since 2009 that FEMA has said “no” to Illinois when the state has come looking for federal money.

Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said in three cases FEMA denied help for individual taxpayers; twice the feds told local governments they would not be reimbursed.

If FEMA doesn’t change its mind about the November tornado clean-up, Manier said he doesn’t know how his city will get back on its feet.

“Our annual budget is $18.7 million, and right now we’re a little over $6 million in debris removal (alone),” Manier said.

The mayor, and Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, blames FEMA’s formula for calculating the cost of storm damage.

The federal calculations balance the cost of the clean-up against the number of people impacted. Manier said small towns like his are hurt because the damage total is not as high as it would be if a storm hit Chicago.

But Illinois has a well-established spend first approach when it comes to storm response.

GET EM CLEAR: Quinn threw every asset at the January snow, but plows didn’t always get the job done.

Quinn told reporters during January’s snow storms and arctic blast that he wasn’t worrying about dollars as he sent snowplows out the door.

“You don’t scrimp when it comes to public safety. We have to deploy every asset we have.” Quinn said. “At the end, we’ll calculate it.”

Manier said in the days after the tornadoes leveled his town, he wasn’t thinking about who would pay the bills when they came due either.

“We really didn’t listen to ‘What if? Is this going to be covered, is that going to be covered?’” Manier said. “We just went full speed ahead.”

The cost of the storm doesn’t end with the cost to clean-up Washington.

Manier said local taxpayers will pay for the storm for a long time.

“If you look at 1,100 homes in a community of 15,134 people, that’s significant for us. We’re talking about property tax. We’re talking about sales tax,” Manier said. “Our community is going to be on its knees.”

Quinn’s office is promising to appeal FEMA’s denial to try and get some federal money for Washington.

If that doesn’t work, Manier said he’ll head down to the state Capitol and try and get some state money for his town.

Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter @BenYount.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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