Former FEMA official: Politics won't help Mpls. get tornado aid

Storm cleanup
Some 2,000 volunteers helped clean up storm debris Saturday, June 4, from north Minneapolis neighborhoods that were hit hard by a tornado in May.
MPR File Photo/Nikki Tundel

The fact that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Gov. Mark Dayton and President Barack Obama are all political buddies won't help the city of Minneapolis get extra aid, a former FEMA official said Tuesday.

Fran McCarthy, who spent 25 years at the Federal Emergency Management Agency before becoming an emergency management policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said politics don't have any weight in decisions about what level of disaster aid a community should receive.

"It's just a matter of how much damage there is," McCarthy told MPR's Morning Edition.

FEMA rejected a request for individual disaster assistance for residents of north Minneapolis following the June 5 tornado.

Rybak visited the White House on Monday to lobby the Obama administration for more aid for the city. While FEMA is providing money to help repair public infrastructure, the agency offers individual assistance only in the worst disasters.

Minneapolis is trying to get money to help 274 homes and businesses seriously damaged by the tornado, but McCarthy said the threshold for individual assistance is usually 500 homes with major damage.

But McCarthy said that threshold is certainly not set in stone, adding that FEMA can't use an arithmetic formula to make decisions on aid. Many other factors go into the decision, such as the size of the state and the amount of state resources dedicated to cleanup, he said.

In addition, FEMA officials look at the demographics of a community. If the people living in a disaster area were already struggling economically, for example, that gets factored in, McCarthy said.

While political connections might not help Minneapolis, McCarthy said local officials are right to try again. Dayton announced Monday that the state will reapply for individual disaster assistance.

"As time goes by, a lot more is revealed," McCarthy said. "You end up finding pockets of damage you weren't aware of and degrees of damage you weren't aware of. Sometimes those numbers can end up shifting a decision."

If FEMA rejects the request for individual assistance a second time, homeowners and businesses could become eligible for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration, McCarthy said.

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