For the second time in three months, Minnesota is asking for federal disaster assistance after waves of severe storms and flash flooding pummeled much of the state.
The cost of damages that included the largest electrical outage on record, thousands of toppled trees, roadway sinkholes and widespread flash flooding last month could top the $7.26 million threshold the state must meet to be eligible for federal assistance, said Kris Eide, manager of the state's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. That's based on reports she has already received from local officials.
The swath of damage extends from Wilkin County on the state's western border, through the Twin Cities and southeast to Winona County, Eide said. It covers 23 counties — about a quarter of the state.
On Tuesday, Eide asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to conduct damage assessments in each of the affected counties starting next week. "With this many counties affected, we figure the damage assessments will take a good three days," she said.
If the damage threshold has been met, Gov. Mark Dayton would send a formal request for disaster assistance to President Obama. That response would likely take a couple of days, Eide said.
On May 3, the president declared a major disaster in five Minnesota counties — Cottonwood, Jackson, Murray, Nobles and Rock — and ordered federal aid for the region affected by a severe winter storm from April 9-11. That storm dumped 6 inches of snow in the Twin Cities, but a thick coating of ice that snapped trees and power lines dealt a far more crippling blow to that part of the state, dealing out an estimated $26 million in damages.
Getting the latest request for aid, which would come in the form of grants (75 percent federal funds, with the rest a nonfederal match, likely from state funds), is not a given, Eide cautioned. Disaster aid is dictated by a complex web of FEMA regulations.
The state as a whole must meet its eligibility threshold for aid, but each affected county has its own standard to meet: in Hennepin County, it's $3.9 million; in Ramsey County, it's $1.7 million.
And not all damages are eligible to be counted as part of that threshold for FEMA. A roadway sinkhole, for example, would not be eligible if it's funded with federal dollars. Plus, Eide said, the money is to reimburse expenses for repairs that are ongoing, which also involves proving they were properly paid for before funds are doled out.
"It's very complicated," Eide said. "It has to be uninsured, and it has to be FEMA-eligible."
Federal funding is available to state and local governments and some private nonprofit organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe weather.
In Worthington, scars from the spring ice storm are still vivid, and the city is still repairing the damage, said Craig Clark, city administrator. The city is seeking $2.1 million to reimburse costs associated with the storm. Without the federal dollars and matching state funds, he said, the storm also would have been a financial disaster for the city of about 13,000.
One big-ticket item: removal of about 87,000 cubic yards of debris. "It was literally raining branches from the weight of all that ice," he said. "It was very dramatic."
Clark said it requires a leap of faith to spend money on repairs on the assumption the costs will be recouped.
"Some of the rules are a little difficult to understand," he said. "But when I step back and look at the big picture, and the overall costs, we're very appreciative."
Last year, the state declared only one disaster, and it was a whopper. FEMA so far has distributed $85.7 million in disaster assistance payments stemming from severe flooding that hammered Duluth and the surrounding region, along with parts of southeastern Minnesota, almost a year to the day prior to this year's deluge. That disaster declaration covered 13 counties and three tribal governments. The Legislature also approved a $190 million aid package.
In 2012, steady rains June 19 and 20 had dumped as much as 10 inches of water in the region, creating the worst flash flooding in more than a century. Dozens of roads washed out or crumbled and hundreds of homes were damaged. A year later, cleanup and repairs are ongoing.