Pawlenty submits disaster request

Published 10:21 am Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Following preliminary assessments by local, state and federal officials late last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty submitted a major disaster declaration request for $8.29 million for the counties of Mower, Freeborn, Fillmore and Houston based on damages incurred from record-level flooding across the region.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary,” Pawlenty wrote in his letter to President George Bush, dated June 17.

Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the request seeks funding from the Public Assistance Program for all four counties and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program statewide. Pawlenty states in the letter that public infrastructure suffered worst, citing minor to major damage to roads, bridges, agriculture, parks, homes and business.

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According to the letter, Houston County was the hardest struck, with a $3.06 million in requests, followed closely by Fillmore, with $2.99 million, then Mower and Freeborn.

In Mower County, Pawlenty cites a total of $1.76 million in need across five of seven categories: $182,000 in debris removal; $190,000 in emergency protective measures; $880,000 for roads and bridges; $10,000 for water control facilities; and $425,000 for utilities.

Austin city engineer Jon Erichson said during a work session meeting Monday that the city incurred about $1.2 million in infrastructure damage, the majority of which deriving from suspected floor damage to one digester at the waste water treatment plant. He added that the officials won’t know the full effect until water recedes from completely from the unit.

In a detailed outline of Mower County effects, Pawlenty said floodwaters from the Cedar River, Dobbins Creek and Turtle Creek inundated yards and basements in several neighborhoods and multiple intersections in downtown Austin, “resulting in the third worst flood in the city’s long history.” Dobbins and Turtle reached the second-highest levels on record, at 18.95 feet and 13.66 feet. The Cedar River crested at 22.4 feet — 7.4 feet above flood stage.

Pawlenty also states that several businesses, including Austin Packaging Company and Hormel Foods, were forced to close doors for hours to days, causing wage and income losses.

“In addition, delays in planned mitigation projects may lead at least one large local company to relocate,” Pawlenty wrote, referring to Austin Packaging Company.

The governor asked to reserve the right to seek additional funding across all counties for individual assistance, such as the Individual and Households Program, Disaster Unemployment Assistance and Crisis Counseling.

Referring to public infrastructure, Pawlenty said the county experienced increased emergency response times and restricted travel due to highway closures on county roads and bridges, as well as Interstate 90.

The city of Adams also reported wastewater treatment bypasses and sewage back ups in homes, and residents with private wells were advised not to drink water if wells were located within 50 feet of floodwaters.

As part of federal requirements, the local and state governments will be responsible for a portion of costs, which calculate to a total of $1.24 million to the state and $828,550 at the local level.

Austin director of administrative services Tom Dankert and Erichson said the city would pay about 10 percent of repairs.

Regional problems began June 6, according to Pawlenty, as rounds of thunderstorms pushed through southeastern Minnesota causing area rivers to rise quickly by the close of the weekend.

“Rivers rose significantly with the weekend rainfall, rising to near bankful in the Austin area, and in many communities in the Root River basin, including the Chatfield, Lanesboro, Preston and Stewartville areas,” the governor wrote. “Rivers had just begun to recede when the Wednesday rainfall hit.”

Flooding in Austin Thursday moved downstream through Friday, hitting Lanesboro and Preston with record-level crests. Significant flooding was also reported along the Root River from Stewartville down to Chatfield, Peterson and, finally, Houston and Hokah.

Pawlenty declared a state of emergency in Mower County last Thursday.

The governor said water levels interrupted tourism, agricultural and wastewater treatment operations. One fatality — 52-year-old Dale Wangen — was reported near Oakland Township. According to the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office, Wangen was killed June 12 after his vehicle was submerged in water while driving southbound on County Road 34.

No injuries or fatalities were reported Austin, and city staff and officials have said flooding proved less devastating than in years past, due in large part to flood mitigation efforts city- and county-wide.

According to the governor’s analysis, about $10 million has been spent on numerous residential and business acquisitions and relocations, including in areas around Cedar River and Wildwood Park. Included in that total is several utility line relocations from overhead to underground.

The Austin City Council approved extensions on grants Monday for mitigation efforts in the Wildwood Park region, where only two of 17 homes still await acquisition, and the railroad revitalization project off Oakland Avenue East. In the latter case, Erichson said he hoped to complete demolition of the old Gopher Distributing/Wencl Building.

Austin is working to complete about $28 million in flood mitigation efforts, and is focusing now on the $11.5 million North Main Project. Officials are seeking about $10 million more in funding, which it hopes to split between state and local levels.

The project protects business on North Main Street, several neighborhoods east of the Cedar River and a lift station near Packer Arena. A berm- and wall-structure spanning from Second Avenue Northeast to Packer Arena is currently under construction.