Story and video: Pawlenty to push funding

Published 10:32 am Monday, June 16, 2008

As natural disasters go, it’s a rarity to witness the aftermath of a destructive weather system and feel good about the view.

But scenes from the third-largest flood to overcome Austin offered a solace of sorts to local, state, even national officials who’ve seen and mitigated much worse in years past, in areas including the Austin community.

“I don’t think the message is what we went through, but what we could have gone through,” said Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm during a city tour with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state legislators Sunday.

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“We’re almost a flood-resistant community,” he said.

He and city engineer Jon Erichson demonstrated success after success to state legislators and the governor as they bused through areas historically devastated by flooding. From millions in local mitigation efforts to speedy community response, elected officials and staff agreed that the city, overall, avoided tragedy, though preliminary countywide damage assessments suggest funding will be available for repairs and assistance.

“The community is getting really good at this, unfortunately,” Erichson said, adding multiple times, “this is a part of the success story.”

The thunderstorms that produced near-record water levels in the city’s three main tributaries — Cedar River, Dobbins Creek and Turtle Creek — began Wednesday at 10 p.m.; city officials began notifying residents and businesses about four hours later of impending problems.

“There was very little notice,” Erichson said.

Water levels peaked Thursday around 2 p.m., though self-organized sand baggers had already responded en force to North Main Street businesses and multiple neighborhoods. According to the Mower County of the Red Cross, 66 of the thousands of city households experienced flood damage.

“In 2004, you had people lined up on the street cleaning up their basements,” Erichson said, referring to the Wildwood Park area, where 15 of 17 homes have been relocated. “Today — nothing.”

Officials credited the city’s $28 million flood mitigation plan, locally designed and implemented, for averted disaster at B&J Bar, Jim’s Supervalu and multiple small businesses formerly off Oakland Avenue East.

“Flood mitigation efforts have worked,” Erichson said.

Not all were left unscathed, however. Though able to divert waters last week, North Main Street business Austin Packaging Company told officials Saturday the company may leave if projects designed to protect its property aren’t started soon.

“We’d like to accelerate that program,” Erichson said, noting its $7 million pricetag.

Pawlenty offered what he could, saying that Local Government Aid funding may be made available a month sooner than scheduled. He also said he would work to push a portion of $30 million flood mitigation funding appropriated to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources into the city.

“There may be something we can do maybe, maybe on an emergency basis,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already completed its preliminary review of the region one day after Pawlenty declared a state of emergency in Mower and Freeborn County, which was also hit by storms. The governor said he expected damages to exceed the $6.2 million required to qualify in Mower County, adding that his office would work to complete paperwork for requests in the upcoming days for public infrastructure needs, such as roads, culverts, utilities and government buildings.

“However, it doesn’t look like there will any for private assistance,” he said. “There are some smaller grant programs in the state that will help with that.”

Pawlenty said residents and business owners will soon be able to apply directly to the state for varying types of assistance, including energy assistance for low-income families that lost a furnace or water heater and unemployment insurance for business owners.