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Illinois officials upset with FEMA denial of disaster aid

Jim Young / Reuters file

A U.S. flag blows in the wind amid the damage caused by a tornado in Harrisburg, Illinois, March 1, 2012.

Federal and local officials are denouncing a decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deny funding to five Illinois counties hit by tornadoes and severe storms in late February and early March.

FEMA issued its decision on the major disaster declaration for individual assistance for Gallatin Randolph, Saline, Union and Williamson counties in a letter dated March 10 to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. The state's request, covering the period of Feb. 29 to March 3, also included hazard mitigation for all of its counties.

"Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that the damage was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the State, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies. Accordingly, we have determined that supplemental Federal assistance is not necessary," according to the letter, of which msnbc.com obtained a copy. "Therefore, I must inform you that your request for a major disaster declaration is denied."


In the community of Harrisburg, the 170-mph winds of the Feb. 29 twister damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and killed seven people, Mayor Eric Gregg told the Chicago Tribune.

"I want to know how this decision was reached and why," Gregg told the newspaper, noting Gregg the estimated damage to his community was in the "tens of millions." "Because frankly, I don't understand it."

In a statement to msnbc.com late Monday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said his agency stands ready to help during an emergency but FEMA was "not always the only option."

“In recent weeks, severe storms and tornadoes impacted the Midwest and South. Since then, FEMA has worked closely with the many affected states," including Illinois and its local governments to assess the damage, he said. Support from volunteer and faith-based groups, and the private sector, combined with aid available from the state and municipalities "demonstrates that the impact of the event remains within the capabilities of the State of Illinois and its affected local governments."

FEMA staff were on location to support preliminary damage assessments and would work with the state throughout its recovery.

"Every disaster is different, with unique circumstances, and in some cases a Governor’s request might not be approved," Fugate said. "FEMA’s decision means that the governor can proceed to work with other federal agencies through their own authorities."

The state's two U.S. Senators, Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), have called for a meeting of Illinois' congressional delegation and Fugate to discuss an appeal -- which they have 30 days to make.

Read NBCChicago.com's coverage of this story

“This decision by FEMA is unacceptable and out of touch with the reality that residents of Harrisburg, Ridgway and the surrounding areas are facing as the storm clean-up continues,” they said in a joint statement. “The damage from the storms in Southern Illinois is among the worst our state has seen in recent years. Federal funding is greatly needed to help residents and families rebuild and we will continue working to see that these communities are made whole again.”

Illinois' lawmakers have sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to issue a major declaration for the state and to provide relief for the counties struck by the severe weather that has left local governments, charitable groups and evacuees "taking on the initial costs of the disasters," the senators' statement said.

Such a declaration would allow cities and counties to apply for federal reimbursements to help pay for storm damage repairs.

Obama recently declared a disaster for Indiana, freeing up federal funding for those affected by the weather in six counties, while in Kentucky, 16 counties have been designated for disaster aid, according to FEMA.

Quinn said he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision and supports lawmakers' efforts encouraging FEMA to reconsider, NBC Chicago.com said.

Msnbc.com news services contributed to this report.

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