The Ottumwa Courier

July 7, 2013

Destroyed infrastructure to see federal funds

By CHELSEA DAVIS Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — Back-to-back flash flooding has resulted in two presidential disaster declarations for the area, which will include funding for reconstruction efforts and hazard mitigation projects.

This week, 47 Iowa counties received a presidential disaster declaration. Ottumwa and Wapello County sustained damages after heavy rainfall in a short time span caused flash flooding the last week of May.

Wapello County Emergency Management coordinator Josh Stevens said the exact cost of damages from those storms is unknown, but preliminary figures show a bill between $400,000 and $500,000. April's flash flooding caused more than $1 million in damages in the county.

Now that Wapello County has received the disaster declaration, there will be an applicant briefing for the affected public entities. After that, a kickoff meeting with each individual entity will be held to discuss damages and needed projects, which is when funding will be determined.

"It's not a set number," he said. "All funding is based off the projects you have."

One federally-funded project is the reconstruction of 90th Street, a chunk of which was completely washed away during flash flooding on April 17.

From the most recent incident, 118th Avenue, Rock Bluff Road and Point Isabelle Bridge will likely receive funding, as all were heavily damaged during flash floods Memorial Day weekend.

"We definitely surpassed our pre-set thresholds statewide," Stevens said of the estimated $22 million in damages statewide between May 19 and June 23.

Wapello County previously received presidential disaster declarations during the 2010 and 2008 floods and the ice storm in 2007.

But public assistance is in no way related to individual assistance, Stevens said, which Wapello County did not receive.

Public assistance is for governmental entities and some private non-profit organizations, whose infrastructure sustained damages.

Individual assistance is for residents and their homes. Those damages can be ranked as minor, affected but habitable, major or destroyed.

But only a group of residences (usually 35 to 40 or more) classified as "major" or "destroyed" can be eligible for individual assistance. One or two homes ranked that high will not qualify a county for individual assistance.

"Major means a collapsed basement wall or more than 6 inches of water on the main living level," he said. "It's strange, because in 2010 we went to locations that had water all the way to the ceiling in the basement, but that's considered 'minor' damage to FEMA. Everyone says, 'I had major damage,' and they did, but to FEMA, 'major' means something different."

While Wapello County did not meet the threshold for for individual assistance for either of this year's disasters, the emergency management team still collects information from those whose homes were slammed by flash flooding.

"It's unfortunate because people did receive some damages, but at the same time, FEMA writes the rules for those programs, and we just try to accurately report those damages as best we can to see if we can get help for those folks," he said.

Presidential disaster declarations also open up funding for hazard mitigation projects.

"Once FEMA determines how much damage there is for the entire disaster statewide, a percentage of that money they give Iowa is set aside for mitigation purposes," he said. "Mitigation, to us, means lessening the effects of a disaster on a community or population."

That's how the Cardinal Community School District was able to construct its new tornado shelter, or "safe room," for which the district received $550,000 after becoming part of the Wapello County Hazard Mitigation Plan.

"If a project is ... really needed, they can get the entire project done with 15 percent local money," Stevens said, since hazard mitigation projects are 75 percent federally-funded and 10-percent state funded.

"The city of Ottumwa got a lot of mitigation dollars in the last 10 years because they're very active in pursuing those," he said.

That includes the recently awarded $12 million FEMA grant for the $16.22 million West End Sewer Separation Project. The city applied for the grant following the 2008 floods.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, we've had enough disasters in southeast Iowa that our folks are pretty astute with the paperwork, and they know the processes," he said. "They log man hours and equipment time, and they take lots of pictures so there's no question later on when the teams come in that this really did happen, on this date, and this is what we had to do to respond to it."

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.