Walz proposes adding $30 million to depleted state natural disaster account

The playground at Harriet Island is inundated by floodwaters
The playground at Harriet Island Regional Park is inundated by Mississippi River floodwaters in March 2019 in St. Paul. Gov. Tim Walz said on Tuesday that his supplemental budget proposal next month will include a $30 million request for the Disaster Assistance Contingency Account.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2019

DFL Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said action is needed soon to replenish a disaster aid account before another spring flooding season begins.

Walz said his supplemental budget proposal next month will include a $30 million request for the Disaster Assistance Contingency Account. He said he wants money added soon to make sure the state is prepared.

Walz speaks at a news conference.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference announcing a proposal to add $30 million to the state's disaster aid account.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

“It would be irresponsible not to assume that we’re going to have a pretty wet spring and the potential for flooding, as it was last year,” Walz said.

Lawmakers acted last session to address a similar shortfall in the account, which was enacted in 2014 to speed up the state's response to natural disasters and eliminate the need for special legislative sessions.

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But Joe Kelly, director of homeland security and emergency management at the Department of Public Safety, said the $30 million allocated last session is gone after 10 major disasters and eight smaller events in 2019. Minnesota was also stung last year when federal officials underestimated the state's disaster assistance needs.

“Looking forward, it’s obvious that if the state is going to continue to help communities after disasters, more money needs to be appropriated into that account,” Kelly said.

The account provides the required 25 percent state share of federal disaster aid. It also provides assistance for damage not covered by federal disaster aid.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona said the account he championed has worked well.

“You can’t wait weeks or days when we have a disaster,” Pelowski said. “We have to get the aid to that area and to those people as quickly as possible.”

Many local communities have benefited from the state account. For example, Norman County in northwestern Minnesota, has experienced three disaster declarations in the past five years.

“Having a healthy balance in the Disaster Assistance Contingency Account is critical as we rebuild our small communities and counties public infrastructure after a disaster,” said Garry Johanson, the county’s emergency management director.

A House hearing is scheduled next week on the proposed allocation. Pelowski said his goal is to get the measure passed and on the governor’s desk by April 1.

The latest flood outlook from the National Weather Service says there’s a significantly increased chance of flooding in the Upper Mississippi River and Red River watersheds this spring.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she supports the governor’s proposal. Rosen said she, too, is making the disaster aid money a top priority for the session.

“Given the challenges we are expected to face this spring, it’s important we are prepared to give counties and communities the support they will need,” Rosen said.