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Being added to the federal disaster area means Wadena County, along with its cities and townships, are now eligible for FEMA reimbursement for the public cost of fighting the July flood, including building this dike at Olmstead Avenue Southwest.

Disaster declaration expands to include Wadena County

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Wadena officials estimate the city spent up to $80,000 on flood fighting and cleanup following torrential rains early July 11.

Now that Wadena and Todd counties have been added to Minnesota's federal disaster declaration, those costs are eligible for state and federal reimbursement. On Friday, authorities expanded the declaration to 24 additional flood-affected counties and two reservations.

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"I appreciate the quick response of the federal government," Gov. Mark Dayton said in statement Friday.

Public costs eligible

FEMA teams are expected to visit sometime in August "to start meeting with everyone to get the costs sorted out and taken care of," Luke Mandershied, emergency management director for the Wadena County Sheriff's Office, wrote in an email. The agency conducted a preliminary assessment two weeks ago.

"The declaration means that (FEMA) feels we have met their needed requirements," Mandershied wrote.

Expense thresholds for FEMA reimbursement vary. In Wadena County, it's about $48,000.

"Just the city's cost pushed (the county) over the edge," City Administrator Brad Swenson said.

Building the dike along Olmstead Avenue Southwest cost about $50,000. The flood tab includes the cost of pumping water and administrative expenses. In addition to paying employees overtime, the city contracted with Bolton & Menk senior project manager Phil Martin for consulting services and Byron Larson, retired planning and zoning director, to help coordinate with volunteer agencies.

The city council also agreed to pay the dumping fees for residents' flood debris. That program, which covered 184 loads for an estimated 70 to 80 families, cost the city nearly $3,000, according to Tammy Ehrmantraut, Wadena County solid waste transfer station supervisor.

Swenson said the city will ask FEMA to pay for damage to an electrical transformer near the Tapley Park storm pond. The unit may need to be completely replaced, he said.

"We think and hope it will be eligible," Swenson said.

In a separate application, the city may also apply for FEMA "mitigation" funds to improve the way stormwater is handled and prevent future disasters. That might include work on Olmstead Avenue.

"If we raise the road a foot or two, we kind of build ourselves an ongoing dike," Swenson said.

Special session?

The federal government will fund 75 percent of the disaster aid to local governments, but the state is on the hook for the rest.

With 32 counties throughout Minnesota now eligible for relief, the $3 million fund the Legislature created last year for that purpose is expected to fall far short of what's needed. For the state to cover the difference, Dayton would need to call a special session.

Matt Swenson, Dayton's press secretary, said on Friday the governor had not decided whether or when to do so.

Wadena's state legislators both said they would support a special session.

"If (the damage) meets the standards that we've set up, we need to find a way to take care of it," said State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, said the $3 million allocated to disaster relief is clearly insufficient.

"The bill that was passed did not go far enough," Anderson said. "It was more of a band-aid than full relief."

Individual aid unlikely

The state and federal disaster aid is only available for local governments, not for individuals.

In Wadena alone, the five inches of rain that fell within a few hours July 11 caused damage to an estimated 80 to 100 basements. And most homeowners weren't covered by insurance.

When Dayton visited the city a few days after the rains, he said he'd like to find a way to fill the gaps in assistance, although he offered no promises.

"I don't want to put out false hopes that homeowners losses will be covered," Dayton said. "I can't say that."

Anderson said state assistance for individuals would "open up a whole new can of worms."

"You're asking for the taxpayers to subsidize people's insurance," he said. "Is the government the best avenue to do that or do we start local charity funds to help that?"

Aiming to help uninsured flood victims, Initiative Foundation has launched relief fund campaigns for the Wadena and Hewitt areas.

The Little Falls-based foundation has pledged to match, dollar-for-dollar, donations (up to $2,500) made to each fund by Aug. 18.

The effort is off to a slow start. As of Tuesday afternoon, just $75 had been given to the Wadena area fund. The Hewitt area fund had $285 in donations.

To donate, go to https://givemn.org/project/Wadena-Area-Relief-Fund and https://givemn.org/project/Hewitt-Area-Relief-Fund53c7dadde943b

Just hours after the Pioneer Journal press time, the Wadena City Council was scheduled to set up a process to deal with donations, such as appointing an advisory committee to evaluate requests for help.

As importantly, the committee could serve as "verbal, vocal champions" to spread of the relief fund, said Bob McClintick, Initiative Foundation spokesman.

"We need that local advocacy to really help this get legs," he said. "We can take it so far, but at a certain point, we don't have the inroad into the right audience. That's where it's a coming together and a partnership to make sure this gets promoted to the right people."

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