Crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in Duluth and surrounding communities this week inspecting flood damage. It's a new experience for many local officials who've never dealt with major floods.
But on the other side of Minnesota, in the Red River Valley, disaster aid is old hat. Officials in those communities say patience and attention to detail are the keys to getting through the flood recovery process.
If fighting a flood and cleaning up the mess can feel like an uphill sprint, getting federal disaster assistance to pay for damages can feel like a marathon. Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger has been running that marathon the past four years.
"It clearly does not get resolved in three to four months or six months. These files stay open for several years," said Redlinger. "It wasn't too many years ago that we finally closed the books on the 1997 flood event in Moorhead. It stayed open for eight, nine years. And our 2009 file will be open for at least a couple more years."
N.E. Minnesota Flooods
• Floodwaters recede, more damage revealed
• Shocked Duluth tries returning to normal
• Road repairs could takes to complete
• Photos: Duluth, northeast Minnesota awash
• Photos: Gooseberry Falls at full trottle
• Photos: The wake of the flood
• Photos: Sandbagging in Moose Lake
Moorhead spent millions of dollars fighting the 2009 Red River flood and repairing the damage. FEMA denied reimbursement for some of the cost, he said, so the city is appealing. Those appeals can drag on for years. The more complex the damage, the longer it takes to close the books on the disaster.
Redlinger said even though his team has a good relationship with staff from FEMA, the process can still be frustrating.
"It's a patience-testing exercise, because you want so desperately to move on and get back to normal," he said. "But it just takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to get to that point."
In Moorhead's case, the city uses budget reserves to pay the bills until the federal assistance arrives. Federal funds cover 75 percent of the cost, Redlinger said. Add to that the disaster relief funds that come from the state, and the city typically recovers 80 percent to 90 percent of its flood costs.
Working through the disaster assistance maze can be more challenging for small rural communities, since they may not have the money to pay for the costs up front. Sometimes local contractors who repair flood damage don't get paid until federal funds arrive.
Gary Durand may be the master of disaster in northwest Minnesota. He's been the emergency manager for Marshall County for 26 years, and he's managed 18 federal disaster declarations.
The FEMA process has generally worked well in Marshall County, Durand said. But sometimes, he's had to push back against the agency.
"The 18 declarations I've been involved in, I've had two project managers I had to have removed," Durand said. "It was like they were taking the money out of their own pocket and they weren't allowing for anything."
In those instances, Durand said state officials quickly stepped in and resolved the disputes.
Getting full reimbursement for flood damage can come down to simple things like dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
In rural areas, local residents often pitch in to repair flood damage. Durand's advice to city and county officials is to document every expense.
"The town board members will bring their tractor and scraper and you ask them for their hours, [they say], 'Oh, it's just some gas,'" said Durand. "The big thing is -- document all the time, the equipment used, take pictures. Just accountability. When the FEMA team comes in they really surely like it."
Durand is retiring this fall. By then he hopes to finish all the FEMA paperwork from the Red River flood of 2011.