Minn. storm recovery may benefit from Hurricane Sandy

Tree damage in St. Paul
Tree damage from late June's strong storms was evident on Goodrich Avenue in the Macalester-Groveland area of St. Paul.
MPR File Photo/Bill Catlin

The mess left by Hurricane Sandy may mean more federal help for Minnesota in the wake of the storms last month that downed thousands of trees and cut power to more than half a million Xcel Energy customers.

The state needs to reach a $7.26 million threshold to receive a presidential disaster declaration. That's the key to getting financial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seventeen counties started adding up their storm cleanup costs Tuesday, working toward that number.

It may be closer than ever, thanks to a change in federal policy that took effect just 11 days ago.

The cleanup from Hurricane Sandy in October prompted Washington to extend FEMA's list of disaster aid. As of about a week ago, that includes financial assistance for all the work cities and other public agencies do to remove storm debris, not just extra help brought in for cleanup or just the overtime for public works crews. It's a 1-year test by FEMA.

Bill Hirte, with the state's Homeland Security and Emergency Management office, said the change could speed up recovering from future incidents.

"In a significant event, a community wants to use their own public works department, in order to expedite the process, get the community cleaned up and the debris removed," Hirte said.

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The new rules mean public entities won't have to wait for bids from outside contractors to be eligible for disaster aid. It means more of the public cost of cleanup can be included in the overall damage assessment. And it may also raise the cost of disasters for the federal government in the long term.

OFFICIALS: DISASTER DECLARATION LIKELY

State officials say they think it's likely the late June storms will earn Minnesota a presidential disaster declaration.

Stacy Zurn, grants and recovery coordinator for Hennepin County's emergency management division, said her county alone is almost halfway to the state threshold.

"As of 5 o'clock yesterday, I had over $3.6 million in estimated costs," Zurn said. "This morning, I've heard of another $275,000 coming in. Our threshold is $3.9 [million] and I'm fairly comfortable we're going to hit it."

The costs are calculated only for public cleanup. That ranges from tree removal to replacing washed out culverts, even fuel to run generators to keep sewers flowing when the power is out.

But that aid doesn't include repair to the power grid, owned by Xcel Energy. Or damages to homes or businesses from the wind or water and the five-day power outage that followed.