Funds to aid 35W bridge survivors go unclaimed

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 7:03 AM

As Minnesota's legislators debate how much compensation to give survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, other private and public efforts to help the victims financially have met with puzzling indifference.

Soon after the bridge collapsed in August, more than 1,000 contributors -- from the Minnesota Vikings to an Elks Club in Faribault, Minn. -- donated $1.2 million to a fund created by the Minneapolis Foundation to aid victims. Today, despite an extensive effort to contact the nearly 190 people who were on the bridge when it fell, half the money remains unspent.

Other efforts also have apparently stalled. A $1 million state emergency relief fund, established in November, has given out just $154,000 despite having doubled the amount an individual can obtain.

And a federal loan program set up to assist small businesses affected by the tragedy has awarded only two loans and has had few inquiries.

"It's taken longer, I think, than we thought," said Minneapolis Foundation spokeswoman Christelle Langer. Though relief aid officials remain convinced the collapse's long-term need may be greater than those following tornadoes and other natural disasters, Langer said, others wonder "if the need is there, why isn't money flowing out the door?"

A complicated task

What had seemed a relatively simple task -- disbursing money to victims of a tragedy -- hasn't been. Administrators said the task has been complicated by a number of factors: victims who are still waiting for medical bills, psychological problems just now setting in, the difficulty of tracking down people who survived the collapse and victims who received help from other relief groups or believe there is too much red tape involved with the aid.

What's more, unlike a tornado, flood or other natural disaster, the bridge collapse could well be the result in some measure of human error. That means that much of the victims' focus may be on exploring legal options.

For whatever reason, disaster aid has flowed more quickly in other cases. Some $87 million of the $157 million emergency relief package for flood victims in southeastern Minnesota has been spent since special legislation was passed in September.

Officials said the main thing slowing disbursements in that case has been the winter. Many rebuilding projects are simply awaiting the start of the construction season.

Aid administrators for the bridge collapse said they cannot cite a single reason why more victims have not sought compensation. A few have even wondered whether the depth of the need was overestimated.

Jim Schwartz, a state Department of Administration spokesman, said the amount available to individuals from the $1 million state emergency relief fund was increased to address the lack of applicants.

In February, state officials increased the maximum to compensate for lost wages and other needs from $10,000 to $20,000.

So far, said Schwartz, four people have received the $20,000 total.

"We can, you know, speculate," he said of the low response. "Part of the reason that I've heard is that ... people have their own insurance that kicks in."

Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, said the money's restrictions were too onerous. "It's been difficult for them to qualify," he said of the bridge victims. "If you weren't out of work, you didn't qualify."

Carlson said another reason is that some private insurance policies cover the initial costs for medical expenses and wage loss, making the state emergency money unnecessary, at least initially. "It was a limited number of people that were able to benefit," he said.

The federal small-business loan program for businesses affected by the collapse, meanwhile, had one approved loan by the end of December, and now has just two for a total of $183,100. The 4 percent loans, capped at $1.5 million for individual businesses, are available in eight metro area counties. In December, a federal loan spokesman conceded that the program was "not one of our more active disasters."

Problems are puzzling

The slow response comes as the Minnesota Senate and House are debating legislation that would set aside a minimum of $26.5 million for bridge victims. By unanimous vote, the Senate passed a proposal on March 13 that made $26.5 million available, but put a $400,000 limit on individual claims. A House plan, adopted earlier, would not cap individual claims and sets aside nearly $40 million for the victims.

House and Senate conferees are expected to meet soon to work out a compromise.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chief author of the Senate's compensation bill, said he is puzzled why smaller relief efforts have had problems. "It seems to me rather odd that they get all this money, and it's just going to sit there," he said.

The situation facing the Minneapolis Foundation and its relief effort, known as Minnesota Helps, has defied simple explanation. When the drive to collect and distribute emergency money began, many groups moved to help. The Twin Cities Power Boat Association held races on Lake Phalen and contributed $3,850. The money showed the "tremendous concern and generosity of the public," said Langer.

And the money, she said, was used in a variety of ways: One woman, suffering from injuries on the bridge, got money for a new bed.

"The need is still great," said Leanne Mairs, who has met with roughly 30 victims on behalf of the Red Cross, which is assisting Minnesota Helps. "Just because people expected them to come rushing to our door for help in the beginning doesn't mean they're going to.

"People deal with things," she said, "in their own time and their own way."

Salvation Army spokeswoman Annette Bauer said that while the foundation may be surprised at the measured pace of victims requesting help, her organization is not been because it regularly deals with disaster aid. She said the Salvation Army had separately raised $70,000 shortly after the collapse for immediate victim needs and watched it quickly disappear.

Now, she said, the issues facing victims are more complicated: Instead of someone needing a car fixed, relief workers may be dealing with victims who are having trouble sleeping more than a half year after the tragedy.

Expecting things to move quickly, she added, is "not how, typically, disaster [aid] works."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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