As FEMA assesses damage, flooding 'will get worse before it gets better'

2011-05-31T17:15:00Z 2011-06-01T00:33:11Z As FEMA assesses damage, flooding 'will get worse before it gets better'

By MIKE DENNISON

Gazette State Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

HELENA — As federal emergency officials arrived in Montana on Tuesday to assess damages from flooding that’s touched nearly all corners of the state, Gov. Brian Schweitzer warned residents that flooding “is probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

The governor, at a Capitol news conference with state and federal disaster officials, noted that snowpack and “stored moisture” in river basins remain at record levels and that most rivers are already full.

“You don’t need a $2 calculator to know that we’re going to have some flooding,” he said.

As he spoke, Schweitzer pointed to a map showing 20 sites, from Kalispell to Glendive, that are at or near flood stage along numerous rivers. With more rain in the immediate forecast and much snow yet to melt, water should remain high for weeks, he said.

The worst flooding is expected to continue along the Musselshell, Smith and Judith rivers in central Montana, which have already inundated Roundup and areas near Harlowton, Ryegate and Lewistown, and the Tongue and Powder rivers in southeastern Montana, Schweitzer said.

He also said he’d be “concerned” about anywhere along the Yellowstone River in southern and eastern Montana, and the city of Great Falls, which lies at the confluence of the Sun and Missouri rivers, which have huge amounts of snow remaining in their respective basins.

Meanwhile, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in Montana and damage assessment teams will be deployed by Thursday, fanning out across the state to tally up damage to public infrastructure, said Michael Ordonez of FEMA’s regional office in Denver.

The information will be used to assess whether parts of Montana should be declared a disaster area and become eligible for federal help in rebuilding infrastructure. The state must exceed $1.2 million in damage before becoming eligible for a declaration, after which the federal government would pay 75 percent of the rebuilding costs, the governor said.

However, that aid would focus on infrastructure and won’t reimburse individuals for damage to their home or property, officials said.

Ordonez said there’s a separate process for determining whether Montana is eligible for federal aid to individuals harmed by a disaster, and other programs that may cover damage to agriculture.

The governor said people shouldn’t expect aid from the federal government, but should assess damages and report them to insurers and local emergency officials, in case Montana becomes eligible.

“What the state of Montana is going to be on the hook for is state highways, bridges, roads and access sites,” Schweitzer said. “With a presidential (disaster) declaration, hopefully we’ll unload a little bit of that on the federal government.”

Schweitzer said he hopes a disaster declaration for infrastructure will occur within a week or so.

The Montana National Guard also has 98 soldiers working traffic control near Roundup and on the Crow Indian Reservation, warning residents against entering areas still deemed dangerous.

But Adjutant Gen. John Walsh said the Guard isn’t preventing anyone from returning to their homes if they want to.

Schweitzer also said the Guard will be in the field as briefly as possible, because of the cost to the state, and that local officials shouldn’t request help from the Guard unless they’ve exhausted all local resources.

“Don’t ask us to send in the National Guard to fill sandbags,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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