Government fails to aid those who need help in flood recovery

IMG_0920 Looking around the community after the flood of June 2012, seeing roads ravaged by the water and homes destroyed, the city turned to FEMA. But FEMA turned its back on Duluth.

Though the flood happened nearly six months ago, some residents are still reeling from the disaster. FEMA’s assessment of the damage provided some aid for infrastructure but none for the individual residents so deeply affected by the flood. “What you and I might consider really damaged, FEMA might not,” St. Louis County 911 Emergency Communications Director Marcus Bruning said. “Say all of your utilities were underwater after the flood. For us, that’s a total loss. But for FEMA, it’s not.”

To receive FEMA aid for Individual Assistance, the governor must put in a request to the president. The area requesting must meet the catastrophic event standard. FEMA’s National Response Framework defines a catastrophe as “any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions.”

The final decision in the process comes down to the president. According to the Federal Science Agency’s analyst in Emergency Management Policy, Francis X. McCarthy, the amount of aid from Presidential Disaster Declarations exceeded $140 billion last year. And over the last decade, the process resulted in an average of more than one disaster declaration each week.

States all over the East Coast found support from declarations after Hurricane Sandy. In addition to their presidential declarations, many applications for Individual Assistance were approved. Residents of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey were all approved for Individual Assistance. According to FEMA reports, New York alone received $744,146,737.40 from the FEMA Individuals & Household Program, which provides money and services to people in Presidentially declared disaster areas.

LeAnn Wallace of Northland’s News Center reported FEMA’s assessment of the damage classification that “17 homes were considered destroyed, 154 sustained major damage, 419 had minor damage and another 479 were affected.” After FEMA’s assessment of St. Louis County and Carlton County, no individual aid was granted to either.

Gov. Dayton appealed FEMA’s denial for assistance, but to no avail. Mayor of Duluth Don Ness handled the letdown.

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“This was a very significant blow for the community,” Mayor Ness said. “It was really discouraging. We’ve seen first hand the devastating impact. We’ve had to react and work more closely with the state of Minnesota and private fundraising.”

Charitable organizations like United Way are taking the lead and coordinating multi-agency relief. With the stark reality that no Individual Assistance from FEMA was possible, something else had to be done. A special session of the Minnesota Legislature met in late August to ferret out state aid. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the $167.5 million bill on Aug. 24, 2012. Though Mayor Ness is thankful, he says there is still more to work for.

“In some cases, the dollars were adequate. We’ll be going back to advocate for more funding for programs that there is a need,” Mayor Ness said. “The legislature took a responsible approach. They provided what was needed, and not a penny more.”

With the money that was provided, some aid was available through organizations like the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Loan Program. Duluth homeowner, Ann Gumpper set to work applying for aid after Tischer Creek rushed through her over 100-year-old home and garage last summer. Although she was successful in securing loans, she worries it would be very difficult for some people to do the same.

“It’s confusing and overwhelming. I’ve been on the phone, doing paperwork, online, trying to figure it out. It takes a lot of repetition to understand,” Gumpper said. “Think just how painful that is for underprivileged people. My husband and I have the fortune to both be very educated; I keep thinking about all the people who don’t have that.”

“There are still homeowners without permanent housing at this point. They can’t live in their homes,” Mayor Ness said. “They’ve yet to receive funding to close this chapter of their lives and move on to the next.”

With the State of Minnesota sitting at a $1.1 billion dollar deficit, as reported by the Minnesota Budget Project, Sen. Roger Reinert is concerned about going into the new session. He fears that they may lose ground they’ve already covered, as many of the legislators from the special session in August are no longer seated.

“My concern is that we’re starting all over,” Sen. Reinert said. “Only about 25 percent of [the current legislators] were there. Besides hearing about it on the news, they don’t know what it’s been like here.”


Most people simply were not prepared for the flood due to the structure of their homes.

“We don’t build our houses that way,” Bruning said.

But, according to Bruning, that might all have to change now.

“What’s considered to be a floodplain is changing. FEMA takes a look at the water and says, ‘that’s a new floodplain,’” Bruning said. “That may impact the way people rebuild. A lot of times people will put utilities down in crawl spaces, but they can’t do that anymore.”

Gumpper dealt with this issue when replacing her home’s ruined appliances after the flood.

“We had an experience where our plumber came to put in a new water heater, and the city inspector came and said it was below grade. The inspector wanted it up higher, but our plumber said it can’t be done,” Gumpper said. “The county has to figure out what to do, because they can’t tell the whole city to put water heaters in their living rooms.”

For those in Duluth, the media focused mainly on what was happening in St. Louis County, but those in Carlton County were greatly impacted by the flood. Bruning said the floodwaters didn’t hit areas like Moose Lake until three to four days after the flooding started in Duluth. For them, the water kept building up and building up until it could no longer be contained.

“They couldn’t defend their sewer pumps,” Bruning said. “So every home in Moose Lake ended up with raw sewage backed up into their basements.”

“The legislature is doing a good job to try to provide some relief. The media focused on bigger businesses damaged. But small businesses run from home couldn’t take a $20,000 hit. People that didn’t meet the catastrophic loss standard and the elderly really need help,” Bruning said. “We need to do whatever we can to lower the FEMA standard.”

Mayor Ness hopes the Legislature can find a solution for the still-displaced citizens as soon as possible.

“We’re asking for these folks to get resources to move into permanent housing. I’m hopeful we can get a bill passed early [in 2013],”  Ness said. “We can’t have a flood relief bill in May.”

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