Reading, Kan., doesn't qualify for some FEMA aid

Sunday, June 12, 2011 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 5:28 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 12, 2011

KANSAS CITY — The night before a mammoth tornado knocked out Joplin, killing more than 150 people and laying waste to a third of the southwest Missouri city, another tornado ripped through a small central Kansas town, causing extensive damage and killing one person.

While millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are expected to flow into Joplin to help with the massive devastation there, the residents of tiny Reading, Kan., population about 230, will not get one type of FEMA disaster aid, and it's still unclear if the town will qualify for a second variety of FEMA assistance.

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, which partners with FEMA to administer disaster aid, said Reading residents do not qualify for FEMA's Individual Assistance Program, which would include money to cover uninsured losses or expenses for such things as temporary housing, home repair and replacement of household items.

It was still unclear Friday if Reading would qualify for the agency's Public Assistance Program, which would include money for repairs to Reading's damaged elementary school, other public buildings and infrastructure.

"We know the numbers are not where they need to be for individual assistance," Watson said. "We are still evaluating the numbers for the public assistance. ... We are close to the federal threshold, but more preliminary damage estimates are needed."

She said a "main resource" for Reading residents would be low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

Reading Mayor Lonnie Atchison, who's retired from the U.S. Navy and whose own uninsured home was heavily damaged in the May 21 tornado, said any FEMA assistance would be "tremendously important" for the town.

Apart from the school, which lost its roof in the storm and also has water damage, a major concern is Reading's water tower, he said. The 500,000-gallon tower shifted a few feet in the EF-3 tornado. Atchison said it's unclear who would pay to replace the tower if that becomes necessary.

"We're scared to death about that," Atchison said. "We'd have to go begging, borrowing or stealing from the government to get a water tower. Right now there's nothing to replace one of them. ... That's where the FEMA money would come in use if we could get it."

The tornado, which rolled over Reading late on May 21 killed 53-year-old Don Chesmore, who was in a mobile home that flipped.

The storm also caused about $1.15 million in damage to homes in Reading, Watson said. She said 26 homes were destroyed, and another 30 homes had substantial damage. But that's not enough to meet FEMA's threshold for the Individual Assistance Program, which requires the town to have had about 100 uninsured homes destroyed, Watson said.

The state has also been evaluating whether Reading would be eligible for FEMA's Public Assistance Program for its school and other public buildings, which sustained about $1.13 million in initial damages. Damage to the water tower was not included in that initial amount. Under the public program, FEMA requires that the state, based on its population, have $3.4 million in damages.

Watson said 10 public buildings were destroyed, another four had substantial damage and seven more were damaged but were "inhabitable."

She said the state has been evaluating damages elsewhere that came in after the tornado and could be considered part of the same storm system and could make the town eligible for the public assistance money.

"New damages have come in which will be applied, and we are continuing to get new information in which could bring us to the level we need to ask for a federal declaration," she said.

The Public Assistance Program would include 75 percent of the uninsured costs from recovery and repair for public buildings, nonprofits and infrastructure. State and local governments then provide the remaining 25 percent. FEMA's regional office in Kansas City did not return calls seeking comment.

Atchison and his wife have been raising their two grandchildren but sent them to live with relatives after the tornado severely damaged their home. For now, he and wife are living in a relative's home in town.

"I'm just flat worn out," he said. "You get a lot of groups coming in and shaking hands, but none of them actually help you," he said.

"It seems to me like, oh, we hear the USDA, Commerce Department and things like that, say 'We're here. You need to apply for grants.' But God only knows if you'll get them." 

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