Durbin and Kirk Bill Would Bring Fairness to Federal Disaster Declaration Process

Bill would ensure that communities - like Harrisburg and Ridgway - devastated by severe weather are not penalized based on total state population

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) today announced bipartisan legislation that would bring consistency and fairness to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)'s disaster declaration process.  After devastating storms and tornadoes swept through Southern Illinois in late February, communities - including Harrisburg and Ridgway - were shocked when FEMA denied federal assistance.


The Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act would ensure consistency by requiring FEMA to give a specified weight to each of the factors considered when determining which communities are eligible for two types of federal assistance Individual and Public.  It also require FEMA to take into consideration local economic factors including: the local assessable tax base, the median income as it compares to that of the state, and the poverty rate as it compares to that of the state. 


“After seeing firsthand the devastation in Harrisburg and Ridgway, I realized if these towns don’t qualify for federal assistance, something is wrong,” said Durbin.  “When questioned about the decision, FEMA explained that the economic damage done didn’t meet an internal threshold the agency uses for more populated states.  The thinking is that large states have the resources to absorb the recovery costs.  Well, that’s just not the case in Illinois, and it’s certainly not the case for these communities.  Senator Kirk and I agree, it is time to fix the metrics FEMA uses to determine which communities deserve disaster assistance.  Our legislation will put some fairness back into the system so that people in Illinois are not unfairly punished for living in a populous state.”


“Anyone who saw the devastation in Harrisburg and the surrounding area following the February storms would agree that the level of destruction warranted federal assistance,” said a spokesperson for Senator Kirk. “But FEMA's methodology for determining a federal disaster declaration is biased against disasters in larger states. Simply having a larger population doesn't make a disaster less severe. This common-sense legislation revises FEMA's criteria to better reflect the reality that communities face as they rebuild and recover from tragedy.”


In a severe storm or natural disaster, communities in a state, like Illinois, with a large population – more than 10 million people – must incur a relatively higher level of damage than communities in a state with a smaller population.  This is true in determining whether both Individual Assistance and Public Assistance is warranted.  The Durbin-Kirk bill would require FEMA to take into consideration local economic factors in order to ensure that communities struck by disaster are not denied federal assistance because of the population of the state.


Though FEMA has never revealed an exact formula for determining a disaster declaration, FEMA has confirmed that the agency considers six factors to determine eligibility for both Individual Assistance and Public Assistance.  The relative weight of each factor remains unknown and may even fluctuate with different scenarios.  The Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act would make clear and consistent the criteria for emergency designation and the weight each is given for both Public Assistance and Individual Assistance, as laid out below:


Public Assistance Program


  1. Estimated cost of the assistance – 10%
  2. Localized impacts – 40%
  3. Insurance coverage in force – 10%
  4. Hazard mitigation – 10%
  5. Recent multiple disasters – 10%
  6. Other Federal assistance – 10%   
  7. Economic considerations – 10%. 


Individual Assistance Program


  1. Concentration of damages – 20%
  2. Trauma – 20%
  3. Special populations – 20%
  4. Voluntary agency assistance – 10%
  5. Insurance – 20%
  6. Average of individual assistance– 5%
  7. Economic considerations – 5%. 


FEMA makes recommendations for federal disaster declarations allowing individuals, businesses and local governments to apply for federal grants or loans.  Individual Assistance funding provides assistance to individuals and businesses to help with temporary housing, home repairs or replacement and other disaster-related expenses.  Public Assistance funding provides assistance to local and state governments for extraordinary costs for response and recovery to the disaster.  This can include emergency work, debris removal from public roads and repair and replacement of disaster-damaged public facilities or infrastructure.