FEMA ready to pitch in
ST. PAUL -- Federal authorities are on standby in case local and state workers need help fighting floods, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator says he takes a back seat.
"We are in support of the governor and the governor's team," Craig Fugate said Saturday after meeting with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, state emergency management leaders and congressional staffers.
With 28 Minnesota counties facing a flood threat, as well as most other nearby states, FEMA is handling things differently this year than a year ago when the Red River was the Upper Midwest's focus.
This year, FEMA coordinator Larry Sommers is headquartered in St. Paul, which faces flooding in the next few days, as do most of the other counties in a flood emergency area President Barack Obama declared Friday night.
Fugate and Pawlenty emerged from their meeting optimistic that workers along the Red River, where the biggest threat is, have done everything possible to prevent damage. But Fugate warned against over confidence.
"We should never underestimate the danger and the risk," he said.
Most of FEMA's time now is spent on getting ready in case there is a need during the floods and to assess damage afterwards.
Fugate said his philosophy is to let local and state officials make most decisions. "Washington, D.C. is a long ways away."
However, he added, FEMA is prepared to deliver power generators, food, water and equipment as it did when the Red River flooded last year. State agencies are doing the same, especially providing National Guard soldiers and airmen and military equipment.
As flood waters go down, FEMA will get active in assessing damages, a step to Minnesota receiving federal financial aid.
Pawlenty said he has little doubt that the state will incur at least the $6.4 million in damage and preparation cost needed to begin receiving federal aid.
The governor said he has urged FEMA to assess damage as quickly as possible when flooding eases so he can submit to the state Legislature a request for recovery money before it adjourns by May 17.
From St. Paul, Fugate was headed to South Dakota. He will be in the Fargo-Moorhead area Monday, but does not plan to visit other flood-threatened areas of Minnesota.
Obama's Friday emergency declaration opened the door for FEMA to provide help to those fighting Minnesota's floods. Among the advantages if a federal declaration is that the federal government will pay 75 percent of the cost of many flood-fighting operations.
"It's in times of emergency when we really need to join together as a community, a state and a nation," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. "Federal emergency assistance is a very important response when communities are in need of support."
The emergency declaration, which Pawlenty had sought, affects Big Stone, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Clay, Dakota, Goodhue, Hennepin, Kittson, Lac Qui Parle, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Nicollet, Norman, Polk, Ramsey, Redwood, Renville, Scott, Sibley, Swift, Traverse, Washington, Wilkin, Wright, and Yellow Medicine counties and the Upper Sioux Community tribal nation.
While Pawlenty and Fugate said the Fargo-Moorhead area appears to be well positioned to withstand the flood, Emergency Management Director Kris Eide said ice jams and other unexpected occurrences are possible.
In Ortonville, for instance, an ice jam Saturday threatened 15 to 25 homes and some cabins, Eide said.
Ice jams, earlier a major concern, are not as likely now, she added, because colder weather is slowing snow and ice melt.
Other concerns include places like Oslo, in far northwestern Minnesota, that are protected by dikes encircling the communities, Pawlenty said. Local, state and federal workers all are poised to respond if a dike fails, he said.
Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.