As the City of Chicago employee in charge of pursuing the federal disaster declaration, I thought it would be useful to provide information about the city's response to the August 16 flood not contained in Ben Joravsky's Neighborhood News column [September 19]. In particular, the article gives the impression that it was possible to have a federal disaster declaration shortly after this storm. The reality is a quick disaster declaration was not possible because the flooding was not predicted, the damage was not clearly visible, and the health and safety issues were under control.
The August 16 storm was a flash flood. While severe thunderstorms were predicted, there was no way to predict the extent and intensity of the rain. This is in contrast to many disasters, such as hurricanes and river flooding, where you can anticipate a disaster long before it strikes and have damage assessment teams in place.
The storm did not leave a highly visible path of destruction. The damage was largely contained in basements and the visible damage was debris removed from basements during the following week. This is in contrast to hurricanes, river flooding, forest fires, tornados, earthquakes, and other disasters which leave highly visible paths of destruction.
The city successfully met the immediate health and safety needs of disaster victims. The Department of Streets and Sanitation removed debris from the streets and from the homes of the elderly and persons with disabilities. The Department of Human Services' emergency programs and the Red Cross provided aid to flood victims. This is in contrast to many disasters where it is literally necessary to call in the National Guard to recover.
Since an immediate decision was not possible or necessary, the goal was to move quickly but effectively in securing the grant and loan programs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help the victims. The city began working with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) on the Monday following the flood. The Mayor formally declared an official city disaster that week and requested that Governor Edgar and President Clinton declare a disaster.
The biggest obstacle was that the extent of the damage was not clear. Flooding occurred throughout the city and suburbs, but much of the flooding was more of an inconvenience than a true disaster. Obviously, FEMA cannot declare a federal disaster every time there are a few inches of water in basements and rec rooms. It was necessary to prove to FEMA that the flood was a true disaster, with major damage in many households. As a result, the city, with the assistance of IEMA, developed a damage-assessment survey distributed through aldermanic offices and the mayor's Office of Inquiry and Information. Ultimately, residents submitted more than 12,000 surveys.
The surveys helped focus field assessments in the city's west and northwest-side neighborhoods most affected by the storm. Using the Columbus Park Refectory as a base, aldermen escorted field-assessment teams from FEMA, IEMA, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to the hardest-hit areas in their wards. Other assessment teams visited neighboring suburbs. After directly verifying a sampling of the surveys, the field-assessment teams were convinced that the surveys sufficiently documented the extent of the damage. At this point, FEMA recommended that the president declare a federal disaster. Mayor Daley wrote to President Clinton, the director of FEMA, and the director of the SBA requesting disaster relief. President Clinton responded by declaring a federal disaster on Wednesday, September 10.
The best story is not the complaints of a few individuals whom the flooding harmed. This was a major natural disaster, and there is no way to completely satisfy all the victims of the storm. A better story is how the mayor, the City of Chicago, Cook County, other municipalities, the Chicago Park District, IEMA, SBA, FEMA, aldermen, other legislators, and the impacted communities worked hard and successfully at securing the most aid possible for the victims of the flood. By far the best story is how people can now call 800-462-9029--for persons with hearing and speech impairments, (TTY) 800-462-7585--and apply for financial assistance to help them recover from this disaster.
Office of Budget and Management