The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

State’s disaster chief says of local frustration: flood victims want to be first for funds while federal agencies rush to be last to hand it out

In City Hall, Floods on March 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm

The world inside the City Council chambers often finds residents frustrated and critical of what they say are flaws in the city’s flood-recovery effort.

But there is a world outside of those council meetings as the top dog at the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division reminded people when he talked at last week’s council meeting and during a talk at the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

David Miller’s most striking point was this: That there is a rush by local communities and by every flood-affected individual in those communities to be first in to obtain disaster relief. At the same time, the federal agencies with most of the money to spend on disaster relief are rushing as hard as they can to be the last one in.

“It’s a race to see who is last,” Miller said of the federal government.

The Homeland Security chief’s point was that federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing & Urban Development all want to make sure they aren’t paying money before someone else is. What has private insurance paid? What did SBA pay that FEMA doesn’t have to pay?

It is for this reason that the federal government is so interested in “duplication of benefits,” Miller said.

That means, he said, that the federal government will always be checking, if not upfront, then along the way to make sure it is not paying benefits someone else has, too.

Miller reminded people, too, what FEMA representatives said from the get-go: that disaster-relief programs are not intended to “make people whole.” The programs, he said, aren’t an insurance policy. They’re designed to pick you off the ground.

In 1993 when floods hit Iowa hard, the state of Iowa sustained $163 million in damage to public buildings and infrastructure. In 2008, the damage at the current tally is $1.18 billion.

“This disaster is huge,” Miller said. By his count, the 2008 hit to public assets ranks fourth in the nation’s history.

Complicating disaster relief, he went on, is “the problem of cash flow.” The federal government prefers to pay as the work is done; the big check isn’t in the mail first, Miller said.

“If you want to know why people are upset, that’s it,” he said.

And Miller said local cities and counties can be forced to return money if they don’t “mix and match” federal funds correctly, making sure that they are following rules on environmental protection, lead-paint, historical review and more.

What has become a cliché, he said, is, nonetheless, true: “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.”

In Iowa after the 1993 floods, he said it took communities five years to recovery from flooding and nine years to put new flood-protection systems in place.

Miller advised cities like Cedar Rapids to get moving on its small public facilities projects, which are defined as those in which there was less than $60,900 damage. FEMA will pay most of the cost of those repairs upfront, he said. Small projects, he said, can get the federal dollars flowing into a community.

For now, the city of Cedar Rapids has submitted 51 small flood-damage projects to FEMA and 146 large ones.

To date, too, he said FEMA has approved $271.5 million in repairs for Cedar Rapids public projects, with FEMA slated to pay 90 percent of the cost and the state of Iowa, 10 percent. To date, less than 10 percent of those funds have arrived, the state’s Miller said.

Miller noted that the state of Iowa has needed to create a new entity, the Rebuild Iowa Office, to help the state get a grip on the 2008 disasters. The state, he said, did not have adequate staff numbers or expertise to do the job along.

“At the state, we hired consultants,” Miller said.

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  1. I have been saying and defending the City Government on this point ever since some flood victims began berating the City Council and City Manager for the lack action on buyouts and other flood related items. I even suggested instead of hammering the City, the hammering should be directed toward the Federal Government incompetents and also the State. Not the local Government who are at the bottom of the political heigharcy.

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