WASHINGTON — Torrential rain and rising waters in northeastern Minnesota broke what was a relatively quiet 11 months of weather-related disasters for Minnesota.
Should President Obama declare a disaster area in and around Duluth and release federal funds to help pay for clean-up efforts, it would be the state’s first recognized disaster since last July. The flooods sprung state and national lawmakers and bureaucrats into action after a sleepy start to what has become campaign season in Minnesota.
One such lawmaker is the area’s congressman, Republican Chip Cravaack, who, after the end of Congress’s workweek, and toured the flooded northland Friday with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. By the end of the tour, the trio that agrees on so little had agreed on this: The federal government would need to help pay for the region’s clean-up.
This is the freshman lawmaker’s first time navigating the federal disaster aid process in earnest, and he said it’s too early to tell whether he likes the way it works. What he knows now is, the state is in good shape to get recovery funds, and cities and localities shouldn’t be wary about starting their clean-up efforts right away.
“What we’ve told mayors and cities and emergency coordinators: Spend the money you need to spend; the money will come later,” Cravaack said. “Take care of your people, take care of people that are depending on you. The money will come; it’s just not going to around today.”
Federal Emergency Management Administration officials are working with officials from the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department this week to assess the damage left by flooding. They’re scheduled to visit Lake, Aitkin, Goodhue, Meeker and Kandiyohi counties on Wednesday.
The focus right now is on damage to public property — roads, bridges, sidewalks, etc. — too large for state and local governments to take care of on their own.
After officials leave the region at the end of the week, they’ll coordinate with FEMA’s national office and eventually the White House to determine if the area needs federal assistance, regional FEMA spokeswoman Sandy Jasmund said.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness has estimated up to $80 million in damage following the flooding, according to his office. FEMA assistance would help reimburse up to 75 percent of the total cost, which, if covered in full, would make the floods one of the most costly disasters since a 2007 storm generated $57 million in federal disaster funds for southern Minnesota.
And that’s just counting damage to public property.
Gov. Mark Dayton has to decide whether to ask FEMA to assess damage to private property, funding for which President Obama, in consultation with FEMA, would need to award the region.
Julie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department, said the focus is solely on public property right now to give individuals time to assess their own damage, should the state pursue individual assistance, which Ness’s office said he’s interested in doing.
The most recent federal disaster declaration in Minnesota was last July, when a line of severe storms and flooding brought in $11.5 million in federal funds for 15 counties from Pipestone stretching northeast to Chisago. The last time the state received individual assistance was after the 2009 flooding in the Red River Valley.
In terms of disaster declarations, Cravaack’s 8th District is relatively quiet, compared with the rest of the state. While many recent disaster declarations have been for rural Minnesota, the last to cover a wide swatch of the 8th came in 2001, when statewide flooding led to a $36 million recovery effort.
Asked if he thought the process was going smoothly, Cravaack said, “We’ll see.”
“The big thing is public safety, getting people taken care of first,” he said. “It stabilizes the situation.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry