Residents, officials meet to discuss federal assistance for county rain disaster

Emotions and confusion seized the day Monday when county residents, elected officials, and staff members of Ward County got their chance to question representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

General David Sprynczynatyk, director of the N.D. Department of Emergency Services Advisory Committee, Greg Wilz, the Homeland Security Division director and state security adviser for North Dakota, and Gary Stanley, a federal coordinating officer with FEMA out of the Denver office, answered questions in the Ex-Servicemen’s Room of the Ward County Courthouse.

Wilz explained that when a disaster event in 2009 began in the Red River Valley around Fargo, then-Gov. John Hoeven requested federal assistance and received that assistance from President Obama. Since 2010, though, the rules have changed.

To date, there have been 18 sites of damages in the county, from multiple water events. The spring melt was estimated to have caused $461,000 in damage to county roads, and the constant rain that hit the county in May and June is estimated to have caused just over $1 million in damages.

Why the process is taking so long to receive federal support was the theme for most of the questions.

“Sometimes people get frustrated that they have to wait. Like in Makoti. It’s 2013, the road went under in 2011,” said Dana Larsen, county engineer.

“Well, I don’t necessarily know if we have any good news right now on grade raises,” said Wilz. “The bottom line is that this last winter, from 2012 to ’13, essentially we were told the grade raises were all going to be reviewed.”

And reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed seemed to be the message those who attended the meeting were getting.

Larsen made a presentation full of images from county and township roads that were, and remain, inundated with water following the rain water disaster event of the near-constant rain from May 17 to June 12 this year.

Many roads have been closed down throughout the county, particularly in the southern portions and west of Minot.

“I live out there, west of Minot, in the middle of some of those pictures you see, so I have a pretty good grasp on what’s going on here,” said Ward County Commissioner John Fjeldahl, who is also a farmer. “My first question is (why) Ward County was not included in the first disaster … I live out there, and I don’t know why that happened. Who made that determination?”

Wilz response was similar to responses to other questions.

He and others in emergency management positions conducted a Preliminary Damage Assessment, or PDA, under the current rules and guidelines. Whereas the 2011 Souris River Flood easily obtained a Presidential Declaration of Emergency, and all the federal assistance trimmings that comes with that, the federal government has since been tightening its belt in light of current budget problems.

“Congress has mandated that when we do a disaster we have to be able to explain how we’re going to spend our money,” said Stanley. “And that’s why we do the detailed Preliminary Damage Assessments.”

The definition of a disaster event has been narrowed in the new rules. Now, as Wilz gave in an example, if rain has been non-stop for a week but then there are a few sunny days before the rain continues heavily, those two rainfall sessions would be seen as separate events, and each would have to be assessed.

Those assessment values, though, are only to the value of pre-existing conditions.

“We’ve got potholes out here that since 1928 were two to three feet deep and are now 20 to 30 feet deep,” Commissioner Alan Walter, said of the Prairie pothole region. “With the damage we’re seeing, will we have to wait for a year or two years to get access to some of these areas? Farmers can’t get to some of their fields in this area. … Roads can be brought back to pre-existing conditions. Well, in my mind the pre-existing conditions as far as the roads were high-and-dry. Well, they’re not.”

“These rain events, Greg, you just said you’re not going to pay for damages that may have happened between April 22nd and May 17, but if it happened on the second event then it’s payable. I just said that river has been full this whole time, so which event washed out under the abutments?” said Jerome Gruenberg, adding, “If it seems I am being confrontational, that’s because I am.”

Their response is that they hope a lot of that will be covered by the second event.

“We’re trying to give you the benefit of the doubt every chance we get,” said Sprynczynatyk.

While some questions were answered, although nothing moved for improvement, confusion persisted.

“I don’t think you looked at the gravity of what is going on,” said Fjeldahl, who was growing a bit emotional. “Even though we don’t have oil wells pumping like they do west of here, all those costs we’re dealing with.”