Southwest Minnesota receives disaster declaration
WORTHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday signed a presidential disaster declaration for Nobles, Rock, Jackson, Murray and Cottonwood counties after an April 9 ice storm snapped thousands of power poles and thousands more trees.
The declaration opens the door for federal money to flow into the area, with aid to government entities and select nonprofit organizations for emergency work such as repair and replacement of disaster-damaged facilities. A hazard mitigation grant program is also being offered for actions taken to prevent or reduce long-term risk from natural hazards.
The declaration has local officials breathing a sigh of relief knowing reimbursement will come to southwest Minnesota to offset the estimated $26 million in damages. Federal aid will cover 75 percent of the costs incurred in the disaster.
Rural electric cooperatives in Nobles and Jackson counties sustained the greatest damage, estimated at $16.8 million, as a result of the ice storm. Rick Burud, general manager for both Nobles Cooperative Electric and Federated Rural Electric, welcomed news of the disaster aid.
"For the cooperative members, it means a lot," Burud said Friday afternoon. "It cuts the cost of the impact to one-fourth of the total cost of the impact, so that's good news."
The total costs to the electrical cooperatives were included in county-by-county tallies of the damages. Compiled by FEMA, the breakout shows more than $16 million in damage in Nobles County; and nearly $6.1 million in Jackson County, $2.4 million in Murray County, $1.1 million in Rock County and $467,500 in Cottonwood County.
The city of Worthington estimated more than $1.5 million in costs related to the storm, from using generator power to provide rolling blackouts to the daunting task of ongoing tree removal.
"We always knew the burden was going to be heavy," said Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark. "(The declaration) takes a big relief off of us financially, so that's a good thing."
Clark said with the declaration, the city will now be assigned a FEMA representative to coordinate efforts and ensure clean-up work will be reimbursed.
Mayor Alan Oberloh said he hopes that reimbursement will come as quickly as the disaster declaration came.
"We're just going to have to be patient," he said. "We're probably more fortunate than some cities."
While smaller communities may not have a lot of money in reserves, Oberloh said Worthington still has hospital proceeds and, while he doesn't want to use that money to cover clean-up costs, the account can be borrowed from if needed.
"I wouldn't want to do it as an outright expenditure," he added.
Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre said the federal dollars will "lessen the burden our taxpayers will have to come up with to cover the damage," and said it would have put a strain on the county to have to pay for all of the damages out of pocket.
"It doesn't make it any less painful for the loss, but at least it can help us financially in the long run," he said.
Minnesota legislators, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Tim Walz, were instrumental in moving the disaster declaration process forward. They sent a letter to FEMA last week asking to expedite recovery efforts.
"This is how our democracy is supposed to work -- to act swiftly and help communities in times of need," Walz said.
"During my visit to the communities affected by the storm, it was clear that they were going to need significant help to repair and replace infrastructure damaged by the storm. I'm relieved it's on the way," Franken added. "I'm thankful the administration listened to our concerns and granted the disaster declaration for public assistance."
"I saw firsthand the damage caused by this storm just days after the event," Klobuchar said. "This support will go a long way to helping the region recover."
All three pledged continued support in the process.
Homeland Security Emergency Management disaster recovery staff will now return to the area to conduct informational meetings for all applicants. All requests for public assistance must be filed with the state within 30 days.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said the federal declaration is a "huge assurance for smaller communities," but he, like city leaders, is also hopeful the state will chip in some disaster assistance as well.
State Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, offered an amendment to the tax bill in the Minnesota House recently, seeking an advance in Local Government Aid for cities in the five counties impacted by the disaster.
Instead of getting split payments -- one in July and one in December -- Hamilton requested the cities get the full payment in July.
"I don't anticipate it being a problem," Hamilton said Friday night.
The tax bill remains in conference committee, but will need to be acted upon soon. The legislature is slated to recess May 20.
"Governor Dayton, I just thought he's handled this very, very well," Hamilton added.
As cities and counties across southwest Minnesota wait for the federal disaster aid to arrive, the clean-up continues. Both Clark and Oberloh noted that contractors started work Friday morning to continue tree debris removal in the city of Worthington.
Clark said the goal is to have all of the tree debris removed by the end of May.
"Then we can take another step toward recovery," he said.
Rural electric cooperatives also continue to address permanent restoration of power lines. A story about their progress is planned for Monday's edition of the Daily Globe.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.