Governor signs emergency declaration

Future of arena still a question
2010-06-21T07:59:00Z 2010-06-22T16:46:45Z Governor signs emergency declarationMATT HAGENGRUBER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

Local officials declared an emergency Monday and began the long process of cleaning up around MetraPark, but the fate of the Rimrock Auto Arena, severely damaged by a tornado on Sunday, is still unknown.

It may be weeks before a decision is made whether to repair the damaged arena or build anew. 

City, county and state officials met at 7 a.m. Monday to coordinate plans for the cleanup and decided that security and safety were the top priorities.

By noon, Bobcats and front-end loaders were prowling the expansive lower parking lot at MetraPark, sweeping and collecting debris ranging from tiny chunks of foam insulation to massive sheets of metal roofing that were bent around signposts and crumpled cars. Of particular concern were thousands of 7-inch roofing screws that were flattening tires.

With the emergency declaration, the county can get to work while bypassing the usual requirements of bids, advance notice and other rules that normally slow the wheels of government. The county brought in MetraPark employees as well as outside contractors to clear debris from the parking lot. A fence will go up around the arena and sheriff’s deputies will remain at MetraPark around the clock until the area is secure.

The separate emergency declarations by Yellowstone County and the city of Billings were sent to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who then signed his own emergency declaration before flying into Billings at noon.

One immediate benefit of the state declaration is 36 soldiers and their equipment from the Montana National Guard. The Billings-based soldiers are providing extra security in the area at a cost to the state of about $6,500 a day, said Brig. Gen. John Walsh, adjutant general of the Montana National Guard.

Schweitzer said he will seek federal funding once the extent of the damage is known, but its availability will depend on the amount and type of damage. The funds may come in the form of loans, and Schweitzer said it’s not a good time to be borrowing money.

“We can make some requests for federal funds, federal assistance, and it kind of depends on the nature of the damage,” he said. “But people shouldn’t get overly optimistic.”

Another priority for the county is the arena itself. The county is in touch with its insurance carrier, Affiliated FM, and agent Chris Hoiness of Billings. The insurance company will send adjusters and a structural engineer to assess damage. Other structural engineers will be inspecting the arena for the county to determine if it can be salvaged or if it must be demolished. More will be known in the coming days or weeks.

County Finance Director Scott Turner said MetraPark is insured for about $45 million, but the county has blanket coverage on all its buildings, so it could tap into as much as $100 million in insurance funds.

County leaders expressed increasing optimism throughout the day Monday that the arena could be saved, but the structure is still too dangerous to inspect. The 12,000-seat arena was mostly off limits because of instability and falling rubble, and employees were posted outside the building to keep people away.

Dan Petersen, manager of the Starplex security crew at MetraPark, said his employees were spooked throughout the night as the building shifted and rubble crashed to the ground. While the metal walls and roof of the building are crumpled or missing, the stronger foundation appears relatively undamaged.

The arena is without power, water or gas, and rainwater is puddled on the floor. The missing roof means that any further rain will soak the seats, many of which are new. The roof and the north side of the arena took the brunt of the tornado, while the Montana Pavilion and Expo Center have been declared safe.

Trees and power lines were down on the north end of MetraPark, and the inside of the usually-dark arena looks like it’s under a retractable roof. Sunlight streamed through the steel beams still in place, and water dripped in places.

A truck sat smashed near the loading area to the arena, and a 6-foot metal trash container sat atop a pile of chairs. The trash bin was sucked from outside the arena, smashed through a metal garage door and landed on the chairs, Petersen said.

County leaders said repeatedly that MontanaFair will happen as scheduled in August, maybe with some musical acts moving outside.

“It might be exciting to have some concerts outside this year,” Commissioner John Ostlund said.

Contact Matt Hagengruber at mhagengruber@billingsgazette.com or 657-1261.

 


Gov. Brian Schweitzer has signed an emergency declaration for Billings and Yellowstone County.

The declaration authorizes state funding to be used for cleanup efforts in the wake of Sunday’s tornado and flooding.


UPDATED 10:15 a.m. : Yellowstone County Commissioners and Billings Mayor Tom Hanel have issued declarations of emergency that allow the county and city to ask for financial help in recovering from the tornado that struck the Heights on Sunday.

The declarations will now go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who will work at the state and possibly federal level to find assistance. Schweitzer is expected to be in Billings by noon.

Jim Kraft, director of the county’s emergency services division, said the area must have at least $1.2 million in uninsured losses before the federal government can step in. Since MetraPark is insured up to $100 million, most uninsured losses will likely come from washed out city streets and other lost services, Kraft said.

 The emergency declarations will be in place until they are rescinded by the commissioners and mayor.


City and county officials are anxious to begin cleaning the area around MetraPark, but the Rimrock Auto Arena is off-limits because of instability.

Local officials are meeting now in the Yellowstone County Courthouse to discuss the first steps in recovering after a tornado struck MetraPark Sunday, totaling the building and scattering debris in every direction.

The tornado also lifted most of the roof off the arena and collapsed walls, so finding a structural engineer is the county’s first priority. The building was moving and shifting all night, security officials said, with loud crashes that spooked security workers.

MetraPark officials would like to get inside the arena to recover files and equipment from offices, but the building is too dangerous to enter. Temporary headquarters will be set up underneath the grandstand.

Other priorities include setting up fencing and security around the area and starting some basic cleanup in parking lots to allow emergency traffic flow.

City and county officials will declare an emergency this morning and enlist the help of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who will visit later today. Congressional staffers and Rep. Denny Rehberg have said they will work to get federal help.

MetraPark General Manager Bill Dutcher said it's unclear what will happen in the coming days with the Antiques Roadshow, Outlaw football and other events, but promoters still want to hold their events.

It's also unknown if the building can be saved. Once the arena is inspected, the county will know if it can make repairs or must demolish the building and start over. The other MetraPark buildings nearby escaped significant damage.

County Finance Director Scott Turner said MetraPark is insured for about $45 million, but the county has blanket coverage on all its buildings, so it could tap into as much as $100 million in insurance funds.

Commissioner Bill Kennedy said that MontanaFair will still happen, with other arrangements made for acts scheduled to perform in the arena.

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