Federal disaster aid is available for residents and business owners in seven Minnesota counties whose properties were affected by September's record-setting rainfall and flooding.

After initially denying the state's application for federal help, President Obama last week approved individual assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The aid is available for residents and business owners in Hennepin, Waseca, Blue Earth, Freeborn, Le Sueur, Rice and Steele counties.

"Don't prejudge yourself," said Richard Gifford, who works in FEMA's external affairs office. "Let FEMA come out to talk to you about your damages and let us make your determination of whether you qualify or not."

The aid would go toward damages or losses caused by widespread storms that hit the metro area and parts of southern Minnesota for several days starting Sept. 21. The heavy rains flooded streets, submerged vehicles and led to highway and road closures across the state.

"That was a ... record rain event, so a lot of the storm systems were overwhelmed," said Heidi Nelson, city administrator for Maple Grove.

Maple Grove received more than 8.1 inches of rain in the initial storm, according to the National Weather Service.

In Waseca, 10.16 inches were reported on the morning of Sept. 22.

Water flooded basements, leading to broken furnaces, foundation problems and staining.

In some areas, such as Brooklyn Park, water crept up to the first floor of apartment buildings.

Obama made assistance available for public infrastructure in Minnesota at the beginning of November, Gifford said. It was only after more damage assessments were done that individual assistance was approved.

"It takes so long to pull everything together," said Kurt Kramer, deputy fire chief for Maple Grove. "We may not hear anything at all about it because it [stays] between the homeowner and the insurance company."

Only people who register with FEMA are eligible for financial assistance. The aid can come either as a grant or a low-interest disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Residents can register with FEMA by calling 800-621-3362 or going online at DisasterAssistance.gov. Once registered, they will be contacted by a housing inspector to set up a meeting.

The deadline to register is Jan. 30, but Nelson encouraged Maple Grove residents to register by Jan. 2.

"We look at the damages," Gifford said. "If you qualify, you could have a check within three to five days."

Gifford said FEMA is expected to open information centers in all the affected counties.

A center is already open for Waseca County, one of the areas hit hardest by the storms; the center is located in the Public Safety Building, 303 South State St., Waseca. Another is scheduled to open in Steele County on Wednesday at 1409 S. Cedar Av., Owatonna.

Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753