Rybak appeals to Obama directly for tornado aid

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB and KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune Staff Writers
  • Updated: June 20, 2011 - 10:00 PM

The mayor had two meetings Monday at the White House, where he made a pitch for more help.

WASHINGTON -- Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made a personal plea to President Obama on Monday as the state appealed for more federal disaster aid for victims of the tornado that struck north Minneapolis last month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $16.3 million for public assistance earlier this month in Hennepin and Anoka counties but rejected a request for aid to individuals and businesses.

Rybak, who was the Minnesota co-chairman of Obama's campaign and who ranks as his closest ally in the state, met first with FEMA and other federal officials and later with the president. While the Obama meeting included a dozen mayors and the topic was jobs, Rybak took the opportunity to make another appeal for more federal assistance.

"At the end when the president came around, I thanked him for the work the White House has done coordinating this," Rybak said outside the White House afterward. "I thanked him for the work and at least got my tornado pitch in."

Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday the state will appeal FEMA's decision to reject individual aid. The appeal will be headed by Kris Eide, director of Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency. The state will re-file its application early this week.

In awarding individual assistance, federal officials look not just at the severity of the damage and resulting personal trauma but at the non-federal resources available to a community. In Minneapolis, FEMA took into account an array of public and private aid programs, including volunteer efforts and contributions from such corporations as Target, Pillsbury and General Mills.

"People rallied," said FEMA spokeswoman Marquita Hynes. "If I were from Minnesota, I'd be really proud of the rallying that went on. It was a wonderful outpouring."

Low income and high unemployment also are factors, but officials examine those metrics at the county level, not just in the neighborhoods hit by the tornadoes. "When there's a presidential declaration, it's looked at countywide," Hynes said. Hennepin is the state's largest and wealthiest county.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents the tornado-stricken North Side, said individual federal assistance could help thousands of displaced renters in the area and help from private charities does not diminish the need.

"That doesn't mean the federal government gets to abandon its responsibilities," said Ellison, adding that he holds out "a lot of hope" that Obama will intervene. "The president is a compassionate man," Ellison said.

About 274 buildings in north Minneapolis sustained major damage, meaning walls or roofs were destroyed. Another 1,608 had minor damage, where a property could be made habitable quickly, while 1,831 had minimal damage allowing people to remain without repairs.

Rybak said the state's case may be bolstered because the level of damage has risen since FEMA's original assessment, though a hard number was not yet available. "We believe we can demonstrate that the housing needs are greater than the early FEMA estimates," he said.

Ellison and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have lobbied FEMA for additional aid. Rybak, joined in Washington by City Council President Barbara Johnson and Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Mary Tingerthal, met with both senators and an Ellison aide on Monday.

Minnesota's appeal comes at a time when federal disaster declarations have been on the rise. The Obama administration declared 81 federal disasters in 2010, an annual record, according to FEMA.

Going back to 1953, Minnesota has had 47 disasters declared, ranking 14th in the nation.

The state has mixed results receiving individual assistance. It received no aid for the 2010 Wadena tornado or for last September's flooding across southern Minnesota, including downtown Zumbro Falls. The state did receive individual aid in the 2007 southeastern flash floods, when eight people died, and for the 2009 Red River Valley floods.

Rybak said nothing was promised on Monday from federal officials, but he said the meeting left him hopeful the situation would be resolved within weeks, not months.

"Before this meeting, we didn't expect to walk out of the White House with a check, nor did we get it," Rybak said. "I don't think it's common to have a meeting like we had this morning, where people from very high level at the White House got together, and it meant an awful lot to do that."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb

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