TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNW) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied an appeal made by Governor Sam Brownback regarding a request for a federal disaster declaration for a number of Kansas counties affected by severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds and flooding May 22-31.
The decision caught many emergency management officials off guard, since they say they used the same system to file for assistance in storms in 2015 and received it. In addition, when officials came to the counties to assess the damage, some were told their estimates were off. “When you have a disaster, you might be 5 or 10% off sometimes, but a half million to $9,000? Somebody’s gotta go, wait a minute, what the heck? What’s going on here?” said Butler County emergency management director Jim Schmidt. “We get the word that it’s been denied and then oh by the way, you guys turned in over a half million dollars in damages, it’s been reduced to $9,000–and I mean, that’s like a brick in the side of the head.”
Brownback’s original request for a federal declaration for the public assistance grant and hazard mitigation grant program funds statewide was denied. The counties named in the request were Barton, Butler, Chase, Cheyenne, Clark, Clay, Cowley, Crawford, Dickinson, Edwards, Elk, Ford, Franklin, Greenwood, Harvey, Hodgeman, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Lincoln, Lyon, Morris, Ness, Osage, Ottawa, Rawlins, Rooks, Scott, Sherman, Thomas, Wabaunsee, and Wyandotte.
Brownback filed the appeal with FEMA on Aug. 31. In a letter dated Sept. 29, FEMA denied the appeal, stating the agency reaffirmed its original findings that the damages caused by the storms did not warrant a major disaster declaration.
Schmidt says that, unexpectedly, standards for getting assistance changed. In an email sent out to county coordinators from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, officials said they noticed a clarification made regarding situations when money would, or wouldn’t be given. The policy point in question says:
FEMA will not fund the repair of damage that is due to lack of maintenance to the road. Loss of gravel or heavy rutting caused by vehicular traffic is not damage caused by the event and, therefore, not eligible. For example, tire tracks/rutting is normal wear and tear when vehicles travel on wet, soft-surface roads. With appropriate supporting documentation, FEMA may reimburse applicants for rut removal when rutting is so severe that officials are unable to pass safely over the roadway and the road is closed until repairs are complete. Such rutting is not considered normal wear and tear.
KDEM officials said they reached out to FEMA in response to concern from county coordinators and said in part:
“After the issue was brought to our attention, KDEM sought further clarification from FEMA Region VII to have them explain just what this means. FEMA advised that if an applicant did not take prudent measures to block off, close, and reroute traffic from a disaster-damaged road until repairs are complete, they will not accept the road site for purposed of eligibility. In our state, especially with townships and smaller county roads and bridge departments, this guidance is extremely difficult to comply with due to area of coverage vs. limited resource. Unfortunately FEMA will not depart from this guidance and if an applicant can’t articulate to inspectors of measure taken to protect damaged roads many applicants will be denied eligibility.”
Officials with FEMA said in an email to KSN:
“The determination mechanism regarding damage assessments hasn’t changed. The damage must be a direct result of the events of the incident period (in this case, severe weather and flooding). In order to tie damage to the event, it must be: observable, measurable, quantifiable, and fully substantiated.”
Still, Schmidt stands by the request and says the way the policy is written is nearly impossible to enforce and wasn’t made with Kansas, or any rural areas, in mind. “Barricading roads, not allowing vehicles to drive down the roads that create ruts, and things like this and you have to ask yourself, who’s making these rules because it’s not anybody that knows anything about midwest road system.”