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City breathing easier after FEMA declaration

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City breathing easier after FEMA declaration
Wadena Minnesota 314 S. Jefferson 56482

City leaders are breathing a deep sigh of relief after a presidential disaster declaration made Friday, July 2 for Wadena and Otter Tail Counties means they won't be stuck with paying for all of the tornado cleanup effort.

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However, the declaration was for public assistance for uninsured losses, like police overtime, public buildings and debris removal, not necessarily for individual assistance.

But that doesn't mean there's no help for people, Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden explained.

"I guess the individual losses weren't as underinsured [as FEMA required,]" he said. "What's happening now is state agencies are moving in and setting up shop in Wadena. State agencies are setting up disaster recovery efforts to help homeowners."

Though the federal funding of 75 percent match isn't available to a lot of homeowners, the state has stepped in to provide assistance programs to individuals and businesses, Wolden said.

There is plenty of uninsured losses that the city incurred that will be at least partially reimbursed,

Wolden said.

"We [the city] have an infrastructure that was not insured -- we have electric lines, we have transformers," he said. "How do you insure wire?"

Typically, the federal government puts in 75 percent of the cost, with the state typically picking up 15 percent and the city 10 percent, FEMA paperwork indicated, although there have been incidents where the state picked up the whole share of the 25 percent.

More volunteers than needed

Volunteers were in abundant supply since the tornadoes touched down in Wadena, but they weren't always utilized.

Wolden smiled when asked about that disconnect.

"That's a Minnesota thing -- 'somebody has it worse off than me.' If they feel someone's worse off than them, they won't make a call," he explained.

About 200 to 300 volunteers showed up each day, but without calls for help or at least permission to go on damaged properties, there often wasn't enough for them to do, Wolden said.

"I came across two brothers who were raking a huge lawn," the mayor recalled. "One of them had a knee that basically needs replacement. I said, 'guys, do you need some help.' They said, 'we've got it.'"

But Wolden called in to order some help for them. Within an hour, five volunteers showed up and swept the debris in about a half an hour.

"One of the brothers told me, 'that would have taken a week,'" Wolden said. "But that's what the feelings of people are: 'we'll take care of it.'"

Wolden said local churches are looking to continue on the volunteer cleanup effort, such as helping pick up debris from curbs.

"I think you're going to see another round of that sort of volunteerism," Wolden predicted.

Worries about people leaving

Wolden said many people have committed to staying in Wadena and rebuilding, while others are opting to leave.

"There are many, many people who want to rebuild," Wolden said. "I'm hearing that neighbors are talking to neighbors and are encouraging them to rebuild. Some have moved out of town. But for some, because of their neighbor talking to them, they're staying."

Wolden said he understands how personal the decision is for some people.

"You can throw all the government programs at it, but their heart is going to guide them," he said.

And he admitted he worries about Wadena losing some of its people.

"I am concerned that there will be a reduction in our population," he said. "When you have the economic job losses. Yeah, those people were trying to sell a home to make a change."

Wolden said some people had opportunities outside of Wadena and had their homes on the market before the tornado hit, and if their home wasn't damaged, it was much easier to sell and remove that tie to the community.

What also worries Wolden is that some people were uninsured on their homes, and a handful seem to have walked away from the problem.

After talking to a city administrator from another tornado-damaged community, Wolden said he thinks the city needs to be proactive and deal with problems like unsafe properties and rotting items in abandoned homes.

"I think the council will be either working through our existing nuisance ordinance or modifying an ordinance," Wolden said. "We will not have foundations that are left open. We will not have holes that are left open. They are not safe. If we have to take action to keep our community safe and sightly, we will act."

Wolden reminded residents who are demolishing the remains of their homes that a demolition permit -- much like a building permit -- needs to be obtained from the city in order to ensure the job is done to meet city ordinances.

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