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Flood-recovery response draws local ire

Paul Snyder
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Patience is waning in Wisconsin communities in line to receive a piece of nearly $30 million in federal and state aid for flood-recovery projects.

“It would have been nice to have had that money six months ago,” said Rock Springs Village President Marvin Holtz. “I’ve got people asking me all the time when they’re actually going to see a dollar. And these are people with no jobs, mortgages due, and I can’t even guarantee we’ll get them the relief they were promised by Christmas.”

Rock Springs is one of 17 Wisconsin communities receiving the federal and state aid, and the village in August was granted $2.3 million to buy and demolish 19 flood-damaged homes.

But rules requiring property appraisals, environmental protection permits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and federal assessments for historic land mean some families might have to wait a couple of months for their money, Holtz said.

“We thought we would get it by spring,” he said. “That’s went and gone.”

The June 2008 floods were the largest natural disaster Wisconsin has faced, and no one at the state level was prepared for the amount of work required to buy and demolish almost 220 damaged homes, said Roxanne Gray, state hazard mitigation officer in the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. The state always maintained, she said, that the entire review and allocation process would take 12 to 18 months.

“We have done buyouts in six months before, but this was five times the number of projects we usually deal with,” she said. “I had no additional staff working with me, and I admit it took us longer than expected. But I didn’t even have complete applications from some of these villages.”

Spring Green was the first Wisconsin community to get grant authorization. The village will use its $5.4 million to demolish 28 homes. Bids for demolition of the first 15 homes are due Nov. 2.

Ed Lilla, project manager for Spring Green-based Jewell Associates Engineers Inc., the firm that worked with the village to prepare property evaluations, said the amount of work slowed the application process.

There are more rules to follow once the demolition contracts are signed, Gray said. Contractors are encouraged to recycle whatever material they can salvage and required to take debris to licensed landfills.

The onus, she said, is on the local governments to make sure those rules are followed.

It’s a lot for smaller municipalities to shoulder, said La Farge Village President Steve Donovan.

He said he understands the need for rules, but they would be a lot easier to stomach if the money showed up.

“People have been displaced for more than a year,” he said. “They said 12 to 18 months, and, yeah, I guess that’s what we expected. But some communities got money before us in less time. I’d just like to see the process streamlined.”

Megan Hart, hazard mitigation officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said protocol slows the process.

“Depending on the damage at some of these properties, the environmental or historic reviews can take anywhere from a couple weeks to several months,” she said. “The pieces of it have to fit together.”

Gray said the state originally wanted all applications for federal money by November 2008, but incomplete applications from towns and villages pushed the federal financing application back to January.

“The delay is not just the state and federal governments’ fault,” she said. “There are a lot of misunderstandings and rumors out there, and if anyone has a question or problem, they can call me.

“But at the end of the day, none of us had ever seen something like this before.”

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