Responding to natural disasters with federal assistance will be more localized under legislation President Donald Trump signed, and officials from rural parts of central Illinois are applauding the change.
Trump signed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act earlier this month. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said his Disaster Declaration Improvement Act was worked into the bill. Davis’ policy directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give greater weight and consideration to severe local impact or recent multiple disasters.
Before the change, Davis said FEMA used a per-capita formula to determine the need for public assistance. Compared to surrounding states, Illinois’ threshold for disaster costs was $19.2 million. Essentially, only if the disaster caused more than $19.2 million in damages, federal funds could be made available. That’s $10 million more than the next highest neighboring state, Indiana, with a threshold of $9.1 million.
In Illinois, Sangamon County Administrator Brian McFadden, who has worked in both rural and more urban areas, has a unique perspective on disaster aid. He said before a recent change to how FEMA distributes money for public infrastructure repairs after disasters, the more urban areas, like Springfield, would get help.
“Whether it was the tornadoes, or we’ve had blizzards, or urban flooding, all those kinds of things,” McFadden said. “On the county side, I saw the flip of that where we had small areas – Williamsville, poor Loami always seems to get hit every spring – that we’re not able to get assistance because the prior rules just did not take that into account what happens to these rural areas.”
Kincaid Police Chief Dwayne Wheeler said after flooding in 2015, federal funds weren’t available to help fix public infrastructure, despite a disaster declaration from the governor. Wheeler said not meeting the federal thresholds based more on population than on local impacts put the squeeze on recovery efforts. Even with donations from all around the country, Wheeler said it wasn’t enough.
“And still today we’re not completely 100 percent rebuilt, so it was tough,” Wheeler said. “But with this new legislation … if we mirrored the same disaster today, we would have assistance.”
FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the entire act is “transformational” and will allow the emergency management community to improve the way it delivers aid before, during and after disasters.
“We’ll never be able to eliminate all risks, but this enables us to take action now so that individuals and communities will be better positioned to recover more quickly when disasters do occur,” Long said.