State lawmakers take 1st step toward bill for disaster relief

Published 10:57 am Thursday, August 29, 2013

ST. PAUL — Local officials went before Minnesota lawmakers Wednesday night to detail storm damage to their communities in hopes of securing disaster assistance from a package the Legislature is preparing.

A House-Senate working group sought the input as legislators shape a proposal due for votes in a Sept. 9 special session.

Kris Eide, the state’s homeland security and emergency management director, told lawmakers that heavy storms in June caused an estimated $18 million in damage that the federal government will help defray. The state expects to pay $4.5 million and rely on federal aid for the rest.

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Eide said the state’s matching money — 25 percent of the eligible costs — will be drawn from existing funds from other disaster accounts that weren’t fully emptied. Legislative approval is needed to move the money.

Stearns County emergency manager Erin Hausauer said the combined help is critical to areas like hers, which sustained $550,000 in infrastructure damage and emergency response costs from thunderstorms and straight-line winds that knocked out power for up to five days. The aid, she said, “would help to make our communities whole again.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency funding can be used for expenses related to debris removal, sandbagging and repairs to roads, bridges, water treatment plants, golf courses and other public recreation areas.

“We never say a community will be the same again. We never say a community will look the same again,” Eide said, framing the goal as to “bring a community back to its feet, not back to normal.”

The storms that swept through Minnesota beginning June 20 packed a punch. Winds in some places reached 77 miles per hour — the equivalent of a Category One hurricane — and damage was felt along a diagonal path from far northwestern Minnesota to the southeastern corner. The storms affected 22 counties but only 18 sustained enough to qualify for federal assistance.

In Houston County, the hardest hit, the preliminary damage estimate topped $339 per capita. Counties need to meet a threshold of $3.45 per capita in damage to qualify for funding. Hennepin County just made the cut while neighboring Ramsey County was left out for not having a big enough total.

“My sense is there is nothing fair about this process,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, whose St. Paul district is part of Ramsey County.

Some lawmakers said they worried that some school districts or public hospitals haven’t stepped forward to account for their damage. Eide said state officials are working to contact entities just in case.

“We do a lot of handholding,” she said.

Lisa Frommie, Faribault County’s Emergency Management director, said the prolonged periods of rain washed to township roads and culverts and severely damaged the drainage system. In all, the southern Minnesota county estimates more than $300,000 to public infrastructure.

She fretted about residents who sustained damages to their homes being out of luck given FEMA restrictions on how aid dollars are used.

“It’s difficult to tell our county residents looking for assistance that there isn’t any available to them,” Frommie wrote in a letter distributed to the panel.