Local officials: FEMA decision a 'travesty'

LuAnne Olsen
LuAnne Olsen talks about all the work that needs to be done around her Observation Hill house after it suffered extensive damage during June's heavy rains and flooding Tuesday morning in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

The state of Minnesota says it's going to fight the Federal Emergency Management Agency decision to deny individual homeowner assistance to the victims of this summer's flooding in six counties in northeastern Minnesota.

"I believe this was the wrong decision, and I am deeply disappointed. We will begin working on an appeal immediately," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

The decision came a little more than an hour after Mayor Don Ness decried the FEMA decision in Duluth.

"This decision is nothing short of a travesty -- a travesty for the people in our region, people in need, that were so driectly affected by this disaster," Ness said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday afternoon. "I'm not sure what the FEMA officials saw, but over the course of the last month, traveling around the city of Duluth, traveling around the region, I have seen first hand the devastation. I have seen first hand the heartbreak, the impact on these residents, and how difficult the process will be to rebuild."

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Ness also said that residents of his city and the area had been counting on help from FEMA.

"Many of the residents that were directly effected have no flood insurance," Ness said. "They're low income. They don't have the means to go out and get a private loan. And so for many, the individual assistance program of the federal government, of FEMA, was their hope to rebuild their lives. ... Now, at least with this initial decision, that hope is lost."

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Word of FEMA's decision came in a letter FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate sent to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday. It said that "based on a review of all the information available, it has been determined that the damage to dwellings from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant the implementation of individual assistance."

FEMA denied the request for private property aid because it said the flood damage wasn't severe enough to warrant federal support. The FEMA decision applies to Aitkin, Carlton, Crow Wing, Lake, Pine and St. Louis counties and the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa.

Preliminary estimates showed the loss in private property value is around $30 million. More than 1,700 homes in Duluth and Carlton County alone were damaged in the widespread flooding last month.

Volunteers at work
From left to right: Mike Greminger, Jane Helsing and Tom Lieberman clean a home damaged in last month's floods in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Even if the state is successful in its appeal, few people would likely qualify for the assistance, according to Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. He represents parts of the region impacted by the flooding.

"Most home owners would've been offered a loan that they would've had to pay back," Bakk said. "As far as grant money going for individuals, there's a very small number of people that probably would've qualified for that."

Even if it is a long shot, those impacted by the flooding are hoping for some type of assistance.

Theresa Wappes owns a home in Esko, in Carlton County. Her basement flooded, leaving at least $25,000 in damage.

"I know there are also people far worse off than I am that lost pretty much everything in Carlton County," she said. "I just find that very hard to believe that there wasn't enough damage to individual homes. I'm a bit shocked."

Like many, Wappes doesn't have flood insurance, and her homeowners insurance won't cover any of the damage. She said she's already spent thousands replacing her water heater, washer and dryer.

"It's obviously going to be a much longer process than if the government were going to help," she said.

The federal government has declared the region a disaster area and plans to provide assistance to local governments to pay for repairs to roads, sewers and other public infrastructure.

The state plans to ask the Small Business Administration for aid, including low-interest loans that private property owners might be able to apply for.

Short of that, support for private property owners now shifts to the Legislature, which will likely convene in a special session in late August or September. The governor and lawmakers now have a better sense of what the state might need to provide in terms of assistance.

The federal government also turned down two other requests for individual homeowner assistance for Minnesota disasters, following flooding around Zumbro Falls in 2010 and following the north Minneapolis tornado last year.

Duluth Mayor Ness urged the state to try anyway.

"I think it's important that we should put our best case forward, that an appeal should be made and that FEMA should reverse this decision," Ness said. "Anything short of that is a disservice to the residents of our area that have been so directly and negatively impacted by this disaster."

Either way, the burden is likely to fall more heavily on private relief efforts in the near future. Duluth officials have called for $1 million in donations to a "long-term flood recovery fund," administered by the United Way of Greater Duluth.

The organization's president, Paula Reed, said the fundraising is only one-third of the way toward that goal, which they'd hoped to reach by the end of July.

"We have seen a lot of individuals and organizations step forward, and recognize the need and respond to the requests for assistance," Reed said. "I think again, with FEMA's declaration, that fund is going to be more important than ever."

Donations can be made at the program's website.

Read the FEMA letter: