Despite snags, flood recovery moves along

Despite snags, flood recovery moves along

Many public projects are done; private property owners struggle with bureaucracy

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Editor's note: On this first day of a two-day report on the recovery from the floods of 2011, we focus on the Musselshell River region. Monday we look at the communities of Crow Agency and Lodge Grass.

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent repairing the damage left behind last spring when record flooding washed over the state.

Much of the work is done. A mild winter and an early spring kept recovery rolling along.

But in the hardest hit areas, public works projects are still under way and private property owners still wrestle with damage beyond repair.

Some problems elude solution. In Carbon County, Commissioner John Grewell still hasn’t found a way to fix a levee breach on Rock Creek near Rockvale. Reconstruction will cost an estimated $300,000, and no public agency wants to touch it because the break is on private property.

Unless the levee is fixed, the scenario of 2011 could be repeated with disastrous consequences, the commissioner said.

“But there is nobody left to talk to,” he said. “I’m not going to get it resolved.”

Other problems defy logic. In Roundup, Bert and Ruth Holmes still struggle with their mortgage bank and their insurance carrier. The Holmeses’ house was destroyed when the Musselshell River swamped the southern part of town in back-to-back record floods.

Twenty days before the flood, the bank that holds the mortgage decided the house wasn’t in a flood plain -- based on a clerical error -- and canceled the Holmeses’ flood insurance without informing the couple.

The bank insists the house is still worth the $143,500 remaining on the mortgage. The Health Department said it needs to be bulldozed as a health hazard.

“I’ve kind of thrown my hands up in the air,” Bert said. “Whatever happens happens.”

A few problems are just frustrating. Last March, Musselshell County commissioners opened bids for two bridges lost to the flood. Then FEMA informed them they needed a “programmatic environmental assessment,” which will include a 30-day public comment period, before work can begin.

“I know it’s a process,” said Jeff Gates, Musselshell County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator. “But the bureaucracy and stuff that goes along with it is kind of hard to take. We want to just go in and fix it.”

While the red tape can be aggravating, Gates has nothing but praise for the people in FEMA and Montana DES who helped the community through the prolonged crisis.

“Truthfully, I’m not disappointed,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of supporting us.”

Although recovery from a disaster of this magnitude is fraught with snags, it has proceeded fairly well.

At Crow Agency, where crews are still repairing roads and bridges, Kim Not Afraid in the tribal finance department has nothing but praise for the help received in the recovery effort, especially from FEMA.

"We got the money fast with no problems at all," she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far received 1,677 worksheets requesting assistance for public works projects across Montana. Less than 100 are still awaiting approval, said Tim Thennis, chief of the Response and Recovery Bureau for FEMA’s Montana office.

FEMA has already committed more than $36 million for public projects in the state.

The federal disaster agency picks up 75 percent of the cost of qualifying repairs to public infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. The state is responsible for a 25 percent match, which comes from the state’s disaster fund.

To be eligible, county commissioners must impose a 2-mill emergency levy. Two mills didn’t add up to much against the scope of the disaster. In Musselshell County, it’s about $17,000.

The state’s share so far comes to $4.5 million. Thennis said it will go higher.

FEMA has also approved grants totaling $6.7 million to individuals and businesses for flood assistance, Thennis said. The agency received 3,617 registrations for disaster funding and approved 2,077.

Another major source of funding has been the Emergency Relief Program of the Federal Highway Administration. Lynn Zanto, spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Transportation, said the state has received $25 million so far through the program. Repair costs are estimated at $47 million.

“MDT has completed repairs at approximately 73 percent of the locations damaged during last year’s spring flooding event,” she said. “The majority of the remaining work involves minor repairs to failed slopes where slides have occurred and in other areas where additional riprap needs to be placed on eroded areas near bridges.”

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