Springfield State Journal Register

March 29, 2006

Disaster declaration made
FEMA officials should land in 'a matter of weeks'


By DORI MEINERT and AMANDA REAVY
Copley News Service

President Bush on Tuesday declared Illinois as the site of a major disaster, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the Springfield area struck by tornadoes and severe storms March 12.

The disaster declaration also makes federal funding available for affected individuals in Sangamon and four other counties: Greene, Logan, Morgan and Scott.

Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the disaster.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the federally designated counties can begin applying for assistance today by registering online at www.fema.gov or by calling (800) 621-3362 or (800) 462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (local time) seven days a week.

City spokesman Ernie Slottag said five locations have been identified in Springfield as potential sites for Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel when they arrive to coordinate the assistance.

"We'll wait to hear from them on how many they need and what kind of operations they'll need to put in those offices." Slottag said.

No timetable was available for when the offices will be opened.

Federal funding also is available to state and eligible local governments and certain nonprofit groups on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work or repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the tornadoes and storms.

David Butt, director of Sangamon County's Office of Emergency Management, said late Tuesday that it's essential to understand there is no "open checkbook" when a federal disaster area is declared.

"It is a recognition that the area needs assistance, but it is not a give-away," he said. "... Nobody is made whole out of this, but it sure is going to go a long ways to help."

Butt explained that FEMA assistance will be broken into two different categories: public and individual.

Public assistance reimburses units of government for extraordinary expenses directly related to the disaster, including equipment hours, overtime wages and benefits for government employees and any pay made to contractual workers who were hired specifically to work in disaster recovery.

"All of this assistance is provided with the understanding that the local government will provide 25 percent of the cost through its payment toward the expenses or with some sort of a local match," Butt said. "The activity that FEMA does government to government is where monies flow back into the local economy."

The individual assistance, he said, usually is in the form of low-interest loans.

"If the affected population will understand that at the outset, it will help reduce future dissatisfaction with how the procedure is going to run its course," Butt said.

He also stressed that the disaster declaration covers all of Sangamon County.

"Outlying communities and townships and rural areas that surround Springfield also suffered with this disaster, and all bodies of local government that have had extraordinary expenses directly related to the tornadoes will be able to apply to FEMA for reimbursement on that 75-25 basis," Butt said.

Among the hard-hit communities in Sangamon County was New Berlin, where an estimated 250 to 300 homes sustained some type of tornado damage.

Federal money could help replace such municipal necessities as street signs and stop signs, according to Village President Stephen Frank. Temporary stop signs are being used now.

"A ton of street signs were wiped out, and about all the stop signs were," he said.

The FEMA personnel who visited New Berlin last week estimated the storm cost the local government about $100,000 when overtime and additional labor and fuel expenses were figured.

David Roe, coordinator of the Greene County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, said Tuesday's news that federal aid is coming made his week.

"We've been waiting with one foot in the air and holding our breath. Some people were really hurt in this, and many people were uninsured," he said.

About 30 houses or mobile homes were blown away in northern Greene County, many in the small town of Barrow, where more than three-quarters of the buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.

Roe said he's received about 30 calls a day from storm victims wanting to know if federal help was coming.

"We're ready for them. We have all our ducks in a row, and now we're ready for them to show up," he said of the FEMA personnel.

When FEMA officials do arrive, Butt said there will be a public information officer who will try to get the word out about where and when the agency will set up its offices.

"First to arrive will be a couple of semis loaded with desks and partitions and chairs and computers and telephones," he said, adding that it should only be a matter of weeks before FEMA sets up its local headquarters and kicks into gear.

"The presidential disaster declaration came as a result of a request from the governor's office, and it is the Illinois Emergency Management Agency that has done the legwork on behalf of the governor's office," he said. "IEMA is very skilled at assisting FEMA at getting established anywhere in the state of Illinois that has had a disaster, so I am confident that a very orderly process will be followed to get FEMA up and running to assist us in Sangamon County."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a statement saying the state appreciates the federal disaster declaration "because it will open doors for grants and loans for the people, businesses and governments that suffered losses from these storms."

Blagojevich also had requested Randolph County be designated, but it wasn't included in Tuesday's White House announcement. Additional designations may be made later pending further damage assessments, the White House statement said.

Last week, IEMA submitted a $37.2 million estimate of tornado-related damages and expenses in six counties. In Sangamon County, the damage is estimated at $34.1 million, according to the state agency.

Throughout central Illinois, 64 homes were destroyed and another 126 had major damage due to the March 12 tornadoes. About 40 of the homes destroyed were in Sangamon County, IEMA reported.

The latest estimate of storm damage in Logan County is $10.2 million, according to Dan Fulscher, director of the Emergency Management Agency there.

Though he said he knows that's small compared to the damage sustained in Springfield and neighboring counties, it puts a strain on a small, rural county such as Logan.

"The taxes and services of this community could have been strained for future events ... but (federal assistance) means there'll be some breathing room for Logan County, and we certainly appreciate all of the helpers."

Blagojevich already declared the central Illinois counties state disaster areas, making them eligible for state assistance.

Staff writer Chris Wetterich and correspondent Debra Landis contributed to this report. Dori Meinert of Copley News Service in Washington, D.C., can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert @copleydc.com. Staff writer Amanda Reavy can be reached at 788-1525 or amanda.reavy@sj-r.com.