FLOOD RECOVERY

Flood repairs adding up to tens of millions

2011-10-30T00:00:00Z 2011-10-30T06:55:04Z Flood repairs adding up to tens of millionsBy LORNA THACKERAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 30, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Money was the last thing on his mind as Joe Lovato worked through the night on May 21 building a berm to protect the Lodge Grass water system from the Little Bighorn River.

With nearly four feet of river backed up into the west side of town, the public works director had no time to add up costs or figure out where money would come from to fix flood damage.

Neither did Carbon County Commissioner John Grewell as Rock Creek burst through its levee near Rockvale and rolled menacingly toward Silesia. The only way to get the swollen creek back in its channel was to breech the levee again downstream.

And no one in Musselshell County was talking dollars and cents while residents scrambled in the middle of the night to evacuate low-lying areas of Roundup as the Musselshell River, bloated by days of unremitting rainfall, raged through the valley.

But it didn't take long after floodwaters across the state started receding in mid June to understand that the spring floods of 2011 would be among the costliest natural disasters ever to befall the state.

The Montana Department of Transportation alone estimates $36.8 million in damages to state and federal highways. Most of that will be paid for through the Federal Highway Administration's Emergency Relief Program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will kick in about $1.5 million of that total.

FEMA, which will pick up another huge chunk of the bill, has received requests for more than $53.4 million for public infrastructure projects as of the first week in October. The agency is processing another $6.6 million in grant applications from 3,461 individuals whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

Too big to reckon

There is no reliable estimate of the total cost of the floods and there may never be one. Bits and pieces are everywhere.

The Small Business Administration has approved nearly $3 million in disaster loans so far. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has committed $5.1 million for 80 projects ranging from stream-bank protection to moving a house to higher ground. Yellowstone County has spent $200,000 in infrastructure repairs that won't be reimbursed.

Other federal agencies will have to dig into their budgets to cover flood damage. Rain and floodwaters washed away the historic Deep Ravine Trail at Little Bighorn Battlefield, ruined the visitor center roof and damaged its walls. At Lodge Grass, the post office may not be salvageable.  Indian Health Service spent $30,000 to repair the water and sewer system at Crow Agency.

Millions more dollars will be needed to fix irrigation systems destroyed by rampaging waters. Since most of those are privately owned, money to fix them will be hard to come by. Damage to agricultural land could affect production and local economies for years to come.

Plenty of costs fall between the cracks. Carbon County's John Grewell is frustrated by repairs needed on a critical levee on Rock Creek that no agency will touch because it's on private property

Although FEMA may provide a grant to make a flooded residence livable again, it won't replace most of the personal property washed away in the flood. It also won't pay to fix private lanes and ranch roads. No other agency will, either.

In Musselshell County alone, total damages of between $7 million and $10 million wouldn't surprise him, said Jeff Gates, Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator for Musselshell County.

By comparison, the county's taxable valuation is about $10.8 million.

"It's mind-boggling," Gates said. "The scope of damage and the complexity of it is really hard to get your hands around."

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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