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Local, FEMA officials meet

Two North Dakota mayors and the state's flood recovery officer got the chance Wednesday to tell Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about successes and problems they encountered while dealing with the spring flooding around the region.

Two North Dakota mayors and the state's flood recovery officer got the chance Wednesday to tell Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about successes and problems they encountered while dealing with the spring flooding around the region.

The FEMA National Advisory Council held its quarterly meeting in Grand Forks' Alerus Center after being invited by Mayor Mike Brown, one of the council members.

During a flood-response panel discussion, State Flood Recovery Officer Terry Robinson told officials about the unique factors that affect disaster response in North Dakota. He said the state is predominantly rural and focused on agriculture, which can cause problems after a flood when communities are trying to get federal funding to rebuild infrastructure.

This year's flooding impact was widespread, he said -- 43 of the state's 53 counties were "hit," affecting about 85 percent of the state's population in some way. While the agency was able to "make things happen with a phone call" during the emergency situation, it wasn't so successful in handling damage after the imminent danger was over, he said.

"When we got to the recovery phase ... that ability for FEMA to make things happen begins to slide," he said.


The agency also has problems dealing with a state like North Dakota, Robinson said. "FEMA's set up to handle large urban areas; they're not set up well to handle a rural, agricultural state," he said.

'How it is'

Valley City Mayor Mary Lee Nielson told agency officials about "how it is," explaining some problems she has encountered since the city narrowly avoided major flood damage this spring.

One issue she brought up was inconsistent statements from FEMA leaders when they built temporary levees to protect the community. Homeowners were first told their lawns would be restored to "pre-flood condition," but the agency later changed that to "pre-flood levels."

That small change meant residents' yards were left ripped apart and damaged from the piles of dirt, she said.

Most reimbursements came in quickly, she said, and FEMA did mostly "an outstanding job" with getting money to people. But many residents are denied only to be told to reapply, which she said frustrates them because they don't understand what they did wrong.

Lisbon Mayor Ross Cole had similar problems with FEMA's handling of reimbursement and said it has been frustrating to get different answers to the same questions. "I don't know why it has to change midflight," he said.

He brought up some rules that don't seem to make sense in communities that have experienced three major floods in the past 20 years. In many areas, the levees that are built up to protect homes need to be removed after the water recedes, meaning the town goes through the same scramble to build up protection during each flood.


Cole said flooding is getting more common in the state, and with a rapidly rising Devils Lake, keeping some permanent protection soon will be vital. "It's getting to the point that the dikes are the only thing that's going to keep Lisbon or Valley City where they're at," he said.

Nielson said she was pleased to have an opportunity to explain real-world issues to officials that otherwise might not know about the problems that have happened in North Dakota.

"They're looking at such national issues, I just think it's really good for them to get grounded and get down to the small communities," she said. "And so I really appreciated the opportunity for them to hear our frustrations because we're in the middle of it right now."

She said she noticed a lot of Washington, D.C., officials writing down notes as she spoke and hoped that some changes can be made soon to make future disaster recoveries a little easier.

"It still does go to the national level so you need to have a chance to explain to them how it works in small town North Dakota, too," she said.

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: 2009 FLOODRED RIVER VALLEY
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