Walz, other officials tour Austin

Published 4:12 pm Friday, June 13, 2008

Flood waters have receded in Austin, but not the number of politicians.

Congressman Tim Walz was here Friday, Sen. Norm Coleman Saturday and then Gov. Tim Pawlenty Sunday.

In the span of 72 hours, a congressman, senator and governor all visited Austin after flood waters started to recede dramatically.

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Coleman visited Saturday afternoon and the 1st District congressman made his fact-finding mission Friday afternoon.

“From what we’ve heard from Sen. (Dan) Sparks, Mayor (Tom) Stiehm and the Homeland Security people, there’s obviously a lot of damage here, commercial and residential,” Walz said before boarding a public transit bus for a tour of Austin Packaging Company. “There’s crop damage also in the countryside.

“We’re going to visit each of these areas, but what we’re waiting for is the FEMA numbers that trigger the next step to seek federal disaster aid,” Walz said.

“Myself and my staff are acting on the assumption it’s going to happen,” he added. “If it doesn’t, nothing is hurt, but we don’t want to have these people waiting on any aid and assistance they should be getting.”

The congressman arrived in Austin Friday for a tour of flood-damaged areas in Austin. Sparks welcomed him. Also present were Austin city staff and officials, plus Mower County staff. Wayne Madson, Mower County emergency management director, and Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp joined the tour.

Walz spoke to reporters at the Mower County Senior Center before embarking on his fact-finding mission in the city.

City engineer Jon Erichson was present with a handout that included the worst flooded areas and flood statistics. The latest flood was the third worst in Austin’s history, ranking only behind the September 2004 and twin “Floods of the Century” in July 1978.

Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm said this flood caused greatest concern at Austin Packaging Company, located on the banks of the Cedar River between North Main Street.

“We’re trying to take care of everybody as well as we can,” he said.

Erichson was most concerned about the flood’s impact on a major North Main Street maintenance project underway in the city.

Ericshon said last Thursday’s flood was 2.7 feet lower than the September 2004 flood, which claimed two lives and caused an estimated $12 million damages in the city.

Ericshon said the twin 100-year floods of 1978 started all of the city’s flood mitigation projects.

“Today, one day after the third-worst flood in the city’s history, we’re essentially back in service all over the town,” Erichson said. “That wasn’t the case in 1978.”

Erichson said the city will continue to aggressively pursue its flood mitigation efforts and Walz concurred.

“Absolutely,” the congressman said. “I commend you on having some vision and being proactive in that area.”

The city obtained a half-cent sales tax privilege from the Minnesota Legislature to pursue flood mitigation projects. The sales tax went into effect April 1.

The most all-encompassing flood mitigation effort locally was the creation of the Cedar River Watershed District by the Mower County Board of Commissioners.

That is an ongoing effort to address water management and flood control work in the watershed above and around the city of Austin.

The county’s largest population center was the focal point of the politicians’ attention over the weekend and one of them was impressed and predicted success in applying for state and federal aid.

Walz said, “We are just proactively presuming that is the way things are going to go next week” and the governor will sign the disaster declaration, which then moves forward to Washington for a presidential disaster declaration.”

On Thursday, both the Mower County Board of Commissioners and the Austin City Council signed their own resolutions declaring a state of emergency and a disaster situation.