Officials: FEMA Miscounted Flooded Homes in Illinois

February 13, 2008

Federal officials were mired in political favoritism and miscounted the number of damaged homes in rejecting two Illinois counties’ applications for disaster relief, local officials said.

Leaders from Iroquois and Livingston counties met to strategize and discuss filing for an appeal from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We are all very angry,” Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy told The Associated Press on Monday evening. “They simply didn’t see all the damage.”

In January, hundreds of people were forced to evacuate their homes in east-central Illinois after days of heavy rainfall and melting snow caused severe flooding. More than 430 homes, including 200 in Livingston County, evacuated when the Vermilion River went over its banks.

Watseka, in Iroquois County, was the worst hit and the streets were flooded again last week after more rain and snow.

McCoy claimed federal officials did not spend enough time surveying damage, didn’t have enough staff, were driven out by bad weather and overlooked a state that tends to be politically Democratic. President Bush, who oversees FEMA, is a Republican.

“I think politics comes into play into everything we do,” he said.

FEMA did not immediately return a telephone message Monday from The Associated Press.

FEMA rejected the counties, which Gov. Rod Blagojevich has already declared state disaster areas, on Feb. 6.

A federal declaration would have provided cash grants for temporary housing, home repairs and replacement and other disaster-related costs. Businesses could have applied for low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“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 and affected local governments,” according to a letter from FEMA received by Blagojevich.

Last week, county leaders and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency talked with federal officials on a conference call about the number of homes damaged and why their application was rejected.

The numbers FEMA used to calculate if the counties would receive relief were inaccurate, McCoy said.

Federal officials reported that 246 homes were damaged in Iroquois County, leaving out at least another 317 homes that were damaged. In Livingston County, federal officials reported 236 homes were affected by the flooding, leaving out at least 40 additional homes, McCoy said.

“We’re not sure how this could be so off,” McCoy said. “Either IEMA or FEMA didn’t complete their job correctly, or somebody simply doesn’t know how to add.”

But an IEMA spokeswoman said local officials helped calculate the damage and the agency has worked with the counties to provide a complete picture of the situation.

“We’re on their side,” said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for IEMA. “If there were things that were overlooked in the initial application, we want to do everything possible to get that information back to FEMA and try to strengthen an appeal.”

The counties have until next month to survey the damage and submit a new application to state officials who will submit the application to FEMA.

McCoy said officials will go out door-to-door to assess damage.

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