Browns Valley residents still picking up pieces from spring flood

Checking homes
Two men checked out flooded homes in Browns Valley in March.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

(AP) - More than six months after fleeing rising floodwaters in the middle of the night, Bill Spotts gave in and turned to salvaging what he could from his condemned house.

Spotts, 80, said he emptied his savings account and borrowed money to move across town. He called it "kind of a bad deal" but otherwise didn't want to talk about losing the house on Jefferson Street where he and his wife, Donna, lived for more than 50 years.

"I ain't that kind of a guy," he said, loading household items into the back of his pickup truck. "I don't dwell on stuff like that."

Mayor Jeff Backer
Browns Valley Mayor Jeff Backer says many residents of his town are still struggling to recover from the spring floods.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Other residents of this southwestern town of about 690 people do. They are frustrated that their government's response didn't include help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said there wasn't enough damage to trigger its funding.

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The problem is repeated dozens of times a year when small towns are hit by natural disasters. Families are displaced and sometimes lives are lost, but the financial toll on towns with small populations and property values isn't high enough to bring FEMA assistance.

That might not be all bad, said Kris Eide, spokeswoman for the Minnesota division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. She said FEMA can have some gaps in its complicated flood relief plans that state plans lack.

"There are a lot of times when local communities qualify for FEMA, but the state still has to step forward to help people who are not eligible," she said.

Welcome sign
A "Welcome" sign stood in Browns Valley even as ice floated by in the water.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

As an example of how property values can affect flood relief, Browns Valley Mayor Jeff Backer Jr. said 62 homes were touched by the flood, and 17 were severely damaged. The value of the those homes in this small town in far western Minnesota ranged from $20,000 to $35,000. The city is buying out seven of them.

Which disasters get FEMA funding can seem capricious to those on the ground. Some Browns Valley residents didn't understand when the agency announced in August that it would provide individual aid for flooding in seven counties in southeastern Minnesota.

Within a month of that flood, nearly $40 million in federal recovery funds flowed into the seven counties where FEMA estimated the flooding had caused about $67 million in damage to private property and public infrastructure. Seven people died.

While the damage was much more widespread in southeastern Minnesota, the spring flooding -- caused by snow melt and ice jams on the Little Minnesota River -- was just as painful for people in Browns Valley.

Backer, whose basement was flooded, said the percentage of houses in his town affected by flooding was equal to those damaged in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.

Pawlenty in Browns Valley
Gov. Tim Pawlenty visited Browns Valley shortly after the flooding. Residents are upset at what they consider inadequate help from the state and federal governments.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Bill and Donna Spotts lost a home. Don Miller lost a home," Backer said, pointing to two of his neighbors. "What makes them different from someone losing a home in New Orleans? Nothing."

The financial thresholds for federal assistance vary by county, and in Browns Valley the damage to public infrastructure alone had to be $6 million, Eide said. The formula changes every year based on population and the consumer price index, she said.

There also needs to be a formal request to FEMA from the state government. Since the damage didn't meet the federal criteria, Gov. Tim Pawlenty didn't make the request, his spokesman said.

Brian McClung, Pawlenty's spokesman, said a similar situation occurred a year ago in Rogers, when a tornado left a 10-year-old girl dead and damaged more than 500 homes. Rogers did not meet the FEMA threshold for assistance, he said.

"Recovery is a long process. Things will never get back to normal."

"It's a difficult thing for communities that suffer significant hardship, yet may not reach the level set by the federal government," McClung said. "In those cases, it's up to the state, the counties and the cities to respond."

A member of the Rogers City Council, Scott Adams, said more than 90 percent of the damaged homes in his city were covered by insurance. The state chipped in $400,000, he said.

Even now, eight months after the flood, Backer said many in his community are making piecemeal repairs until they can afford to do more. The city is still trying to get all of its residents back into their homes and start projects to protect the town the next time the river jumps its banks.

"Recovery is a long process," he said. "Things will never get back to normal."

Browns Valley can't do it on its own. Like many rural towns, its population is aging and incomes are low; the latest census put the town's the median income of $26,563 at about half the overall state median.

"This is a small community with people who don't have a lot of money to begin with," said Becky Schulz, whose basement was flooded. "We're living check by check."

Backer said no more than five residents in Browns Valley had flood insurance.

Brown Valley transport
Many streets in Browns Valley remained flooded 36 hours after the Little Minnesota River flowed through the town in March.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"People say, 'Well, they should have had flood insurance,'" he said. "I don't disagree with that, but elderly people on a fixed income have to prioritize. Food, shelter, medication. If you don't have the funds for something else, it goes."

FEMA did provide five mobile homes for temporary housing - after the city paid about $13,000 to transport four of them from Alabama. At least four residents were still living in the homes, which are scheduled to be moved sometime this month, Backer said.

Without federal disaster money, Browns Valley has turned to funds from the state, a special appropriation from Congress and donations distributed through a local nonprofit. Home and business owners also qualified for low-interest Small Business Administration loans.

The $2 million approved the state Legislature will primarily be used for infrastructure, expenses and two flood-control projects.

"The state's doing the best they can, but they're not set up to help like FEMA," Backer said.

Besides money, FEMA can also provide crisis counseling, unemployment assistance, legal aid and help with income tax, Social Security and veteran's benefits.

The nonprofit West Central Minnesota Communities Action is managing a $280,000 flood relief fund with money raised from a variety of sources. About 60 grants worth $1,000 have come from the fund. Through a separate program, West Central has helped low-income residents fix their furnaces and water heaters.

"West Central has been a lifesaver," said Edith Eldridge, a Browns Valley resident. "I had five and a half foot of water in my basement and I lost everything I had down there. Furnace, electrical work and everything."

Steve Nagle, executive director of West Central, said a committee of Browns Valley community leaders decides how to spend the long-term relief money. He worried there would not be enough to meet the needs.

"They're still in a world of hurt," Nagle said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)