- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn lobbied in Congress’ backyard Monday for a legislative overhaul of the federal government’s formula for doling out disaster assistance, questioning why his disaster-plagued state was rebuffed after a recent series of deadly tornadoes.

Quinn, a Democrat seeking re-election, used his keynote speech in Washington, D.C., during a National Journal-hosted forum on natural disasters to make his case for revamping what he called the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “outdated” criteria for deciding disaster relief.

Illinois hasn’t had much of a reprieve from severe weather over the past five years, Quinn suggested, citing the historic drought of 2012, deadly tornadoes the past two years, this winter’s ravaging storms and last spring’s flooding that affected four dozen counties.

During most of those events, Quinn said, Illinois mobilized state resources to the affected areas, including those raked last November by two dozen tornadoes that killed eight people and destroyed or damaged 2,500 homes.

Federal aid was given to people and businesses affected by those tornadoes, but FEMA’s funding formula denied the state’s request for assistance to local governments, which Quinn said incurred $6.1 million in storm-related expenses in nine affected counties.

FEMA did the same in 2012 when a tornado tore through southern Illinois’ Harrisburg, killing seven and forcing Illinois agencies to cobble together an $8.8 million aid package, Quinn said.

Quinn and Illinois’ U.S. senators complain that communities in highly populated states - like Illinois, with its more than 10 million people - under FEMA’s aid formula must incur a greater level of damage than communities in lesser-populated states. To Quinn, that’s “flawed” and worthy of “a clearer, more substantive formula when evaluating disaster areas,” something he believes would come from the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act pending in Congress.

Backed by Illinois’ U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Republican Mark Kirk, the bill would weight evaluation factors FEMA already uses but add local or regional economic criteria for consideration.

“Disaster assistance shouldn’t be based on an outdated formula that excludes some of our hardest-hit communities,” Quinn said. “FEMA has been a great partner in helping individuals and businesses recover, and this legislation will allow them to assist even more communities with disaster recovery.”

FEMA, while saying Quinn’s appeal of the denial related to the November tornadoes is being reviewed, defended on Monday its protocols in deciding such matters. In an emailed response to The Associated Press, FEMA said that though it does determine whether the costs of response and recovery efforts are too much for states, local governments and voluntary agencies, “by law FEMA cannot duplicate assistance available from other sources, including other federal agencies, insurance companies, voluntary agencies or the private sector.”

FEMA said it “carefully considered” Illinois’ request but concluded “the public costs associated with the response and recovery efforts were not beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments such that additional federal assistance is required.”

Illinois did get some good news Monday, when the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the state would get an emergency grant that will incrementally pay more than $646,000 to help continue cleanup and recovery efforts tied to severe storms that socked 40 Illinois counties in April and May of last year.

That money comes from the Labor Department chief’s discretionary fund, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether Monday’s announcement was related to Quinn’s remarks.