FEMA reconsiders federal assistance for Harrisburg

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg said he is optimistic FEMA will grant federal disaster assistance to his town.

After an EF4 tornado that hit Harrisburg Feb. 29 left seven dead and around 300 homes and 25 businesses damaged, FEMA initially denied the town’s request for federal assistance. Because of the work from Illinois officials such as Gov. Pat Quinn; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois; and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois to appeal the decision, FEMA granted a second review of the town’s damage and will announce its decision shortly.

Quinn said he was extremely disappointed the request was initially denied.

“After personally surveying the damage and talking to many residents who lost their homes, I firmly believe federal assistance is crucial to help them begin the recovery process,” he said in a report by the Southern Illinoisan.

Gregg said FEMA uses a formula to decide whether an area needs federal assistance. He said FEMA cited the denial of assistance because Harrisburg has adequate help from its surrounding state and volunteer efforts.

“But, obviously, we did not concur with that,” Gregg said.

Debbie Williams, a Harrisburg resident, said most towns move slowly to clean up after a disaster, but Harrisburg had cleared out much of the debris within hours after the tornado. She said it would be easy for the town to appear like it doesn’t need much assistance.

Gregg said otherwise.

“What we found was the homes that initially looked like they were structurally sound upon close examination, getting inside of them and looking through them … they were very unsafe and have to come down,” he said.

One example included a friend of Williams’.

“My daughter-in-law’s mother, her house structurally looks OK, but after an assessment they found it had been moved an inch and a half off the foundation,” Williams said.

If the assistance is granted, Gregg said it could come in many forms. He said the town could receive money or trailers to house people, but the city has to find out what it qualifies for first. There’s already a flood recovery project that allowed the town to hire 25 workers after record-breaking rains in April and May 2011. If that program could be redirected to the tornado recovery, Gregg said, about 75 to 100 more workers could be hired.

However, there’s still a chance FEMA could deny the federal assistance again. Gregg said it would be hard for the community, but he believes residents would push forward anyway.

“We’ll do our best to make (the community) whole again, and it may take a little more time than if we had the assistance from FEMA, but we’ll continue to work at it,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon visited Ridgway Friday to inspect the village’s damage. She said the devastation was sad and she hopes federal aid will come through, but if not, there will be low-interest loans available to the affected.

Keith Huke, a Harrisburg resident whose home was destroyed, said his town would be dramatically hurt if it doesn’t get federal aid.

“We need it terribly,” he said. “Here we are with casualties and homes destroyed.”

Hukes said he has insurance but isn’t sure how much of it will cover the damage to his property.

Williams said the lack of federal assistance would be detrimental, especially to those who don’t have insurance.

Some people may not be eligible to take out loans, Gregg said, but the city is doing everything it can to look into other options for them. He said the state has been a big help so far, though, by sending work crews and Illinois Department of Transportation trucks.

Gregg said he hasn’t heard back on FEMA’s decision yet, but he thinks it will be positive.

“We know that after reassessment, we are very optimisitic that we’ll hear good news this time,” he said.

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About Tara Kulash

You can reach Tara at tkulash@dailyegyptian.com or 536-3311 ext. 255.

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