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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


By Mr. DURBIN (for himself and Mr. KIRK):

S. 2303. A bill to require rulemaking by the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to address considerations in evaluating the need for public and individual disaster assistance, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, today I am introducing the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declaration Act. I am introducing it on behalf of myself and my colleague, Senator Mark Kirk. What we are trying to achieve is fairness in FEMA's consideration of whether a community will be granted Federal assistance after a disaster. I think this legislation is essential because of what just happened in my State.

From 2007 to 2011, Illinois was denied Federal assistance three times. Texas was denied nine times. The damage was caused by everything from wildfires to tropical storms. California was denied five times during that 5-year period. Florida was denied four times, including for damage from Hurricane Ike. And unfortunately, as I mentioned, in my home State of Illinois, the communities of Harrisburg and Ridgway were denied.

This is the damage I saw when I went down to Harrisburg, IL, after a recent tornado. This was a shopping mall, but it was virtually collapsed by winds of 175 miles-per-hour intensity. That is the second highest intensity of recorded winds in a tornado. This property damage, of course, is just a minor part of what actually happened. The major part was the loss of life. Seven people were killed as a result of the tornado damage.

I grew up in the Midwest. I have seen tornadoes all my life. I lived waiting to hear the air raid sirens and head toward the basement. But I never saw anything quite as devastating as what I saw in Harrisburg. And then when I went over to Ridgway, IL, about 25 miles away, I saw that the local Catholic church, which had been standing for I think a century, collapsed when the winds hit it.

It was clear to me and to the Governor and many others as we toured the site that this was going to be a Federal disaster area.

That 175 mile-an-hour wind literally lifted homes off of their slab foundations and tossed them on top of other homes. In one neighborhood in Harrisburg, I happened to see some people leaving in a truck, and I stopped them and they said that the lady in the front seat actually lived in one of the houses that had been destroyed. She pointed it out to me. She got up early enough so that she heard the air raid siren and had the good sense to hit the floor in the bathroom right before the tornado hit her home. Of course, after it hit, and another home collapsed on top of it, the ceiling of her bathroom collapsed on her, but there was enough room for her to survive. They started hearing shortly thereafter the rescuers coming in. She made it with a few scratches and bruises. Just across the street, in one of the homes that was tossed was a 22-year-old local nurse who died as a result.

There were great efforts by first responders, terrific humanitarian gestures. The local coal miners a few miles away, when they heard about the disaster, in full gear, came out of the coal mines and rushed into Harrisburg to pull people out of their homes after they had collapsed.

We went ahead and made our application for Federal disaster aid in Harrisburg, IL, and we were denied. In the President's home State, we were denied. We thought, something is wrong here. We thought, with all of this damage from a tornado of this intensity, it must be wrong. So Governor Quinn sat down with local and State officials and redrafted our application for Federal assistance. It was sent to Washington, and it was denied a second time. I was stunned by it. I couldn't believe it, after having seen it, that this happened.

We went to FEMA and said, What did we miss here? People died, over 100 homes were destroyed, and it ripped its way through Harrisburg and into Ridgway, IL. What was missing here? Well, they said, we have to do a calculation under the law, and one of the elements in the calculation is the population of your State. Well, this is how it turned out. The damage that happened in southern Illinois, if it had happened across the river in Indiana or in Kentucky or in Missouri, would have been a Federal disaster. But because we have about 12 million people, we weren't declared a Federal disaster. What is the thinking behind that? If you are from a big State, you must have a lot of resources to take care of your own problems. Not so. Unfortunately, the State budget of Illinois is virtually bankrupt.

So we decided it was time to put a bill in that took into consideration a lot of factors and did not allow this disqualification for a large State. The bill Senator Mark Kirk and I are introducing today assigns a value to each of the six factors that are to be considered in a disaster declaration analysis. When it comes to individual assistance, help for people to rebuild their homes and pay for temporary housing, we use the same consistent factors no matter where the disaster strikes. The population of the State is worth 5 percent of the consideration. The consideration of the concentration of damages is worth 20 percent; the amount of trauma to the disaster area, 20 percent; the number of special populations such as the elderly or unemployed, 20 percent of the analysis; the amount of voluntary assistance in the area, 10 percent; and the amount of insurance coverage for the type of damage incurred, 20 percent.

Our bill also adds a seventh consideration to FEMA's metrics: the economics of the area. It turns out that southern Illinois is hard-pressed. There are a lot of unemployed people, a struggling economy. So we take a look at the local tax base, the median income as it compares to that of the State, and the poverty rate in the area that has been hard hit. It is reasonable that FEMA should take into consideration the size of a State; I don't argue with that, but it shouldn't loom large and disqualify situations which clearly deserve to be considered Federal disasters. Assigning values to the factors will ensure that damage to a specific community weighs more than just the State's population.

After the tornadoes hit Harrisburg and Ridgway, the head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Jonathon Monken, worked with locals and people from the FEMA regional office to determine if the State could apply for public assistance--money to help local Mayor Gregg in Harrisburg and others pay for overtime accrued by all the people working around the clock to help the community dig out of the destruction. What Director Monken and others discovered was that it would have been a waste of the State's time and resources to even consider applying for it. We didn't meet FEMA's threshold.

Currently, FEMA multiplies the number of people in a State by $1.35 to determine the threshold of the amount of damage a State would have to incur to qualify for public assistance. In Illinois, that figure is $17 million. Well, Harrisburg, Ridgway, and the surrounding communities had about $5.5 million in public assistance damage. That is a lot of loss for rural areas and small towns, but not enough to qualify for Federal assistance.

So we put together in this bill a standard for public assistance--money that would go to local units of government. Per capita consideration, 10 percent; localized impact of the disaster, 40 percent; the estimated cost of assistant needed, 10 percent; insurance coverage, 10 percent; the number of recent multiple disasters, 10 percent; and an analysis of other Federal assistance in the area, 10 percent. The bill would also add a seventh consideration just as it did under individual assistance, and that is the economic circumstances of the affected area. I mentioned earlier the elements that were brought into consideration there. I think this is a more honest and realistic approach.

Today, in order to introduce this bill, I am talking about a disaster which visited our State a few weeks ago. Tomorrow it could be the State of one of my colleagues. My colleagues could find out that a devastating natural disaster does not qualify for Federal disaster assistance simply because of the population of their State. I don't think that is a fair metric to use. I think our approach is fairer.

I commend this bill to my colleagues. As I say in closing, over this last few months it was Illinois. Tomorrow, it may be a colleague's State. Please take the time and look at this approach. I think it is fair to taxpayers. It is certainly fair to families across America.

Those of us who have been in the Senate and the Congress for a while have stepped up time and again when our colleagues were affected by a natural disaster. I hope my colleagues will take the time to consider this legislation from Senator Kirk and myself.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record as follows:


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