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

FEMA’s infrastructure director for Iowa says to expect slow-go on flood-damaged City Hall: ‘You eat an elephant one bite at a time,’ he says

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods on March 31, 2009 at 9:54 am

There is no panic to fix the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island in the Cedar River as far as the Federal Emergency Management Agency is concerned, says Chuck Chaffins, FEMA infrastructure branch director for Iowa.

FEMA and the city, Chaffins says, continue to negotiate the amount of flood damage to the building, which the city has said is in the $20-million-plus ball park. The State of Iowa Historic Preservation Office is involved in the damage assessments, too.

FEMA can extend the deadline to complete renovation work to 48 months, though Chaffins calls the 4-year-point a “line in the sand” in which FEMA expects to the city to have a big renovation project like that at the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall complete.

“We want work to get underway, but we’re not looking at the watch,” he says.

Chaffins says one key determination has been made: Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall sits outside the city’s 100-year flood plain. This will save the city $1 million, he says. It is the $1 million in deductible liability that the city would have had to subtract from FEMA’s grant to fix City Hall if the building, in fact, was in the 100-year flood plain.

Chaffins says he has not seen one piece of paper cross his desk that would indicate that the City Council, the city manager or anyone else with the city intends to try to use FEMA repair money intended for the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall to build a different city building somewhere else.

The historical standing of City Hall will make it difficult to convince the State of Iowa’s Historic Preservation Office that FEMA funds should not be used to restore the building at least to its pre-flood condition, he says.

Chaffins has been in Iowa 13 months out of the last two years for FEMA, and he is now leaving and returning to the FEMA office in Kansas City.

He says he’s taken a particular interest in two flood-damaged city properties: the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, which he calls “a pretty serious building” because of its ties to veterans; and the Paramount Theatre, which he calls an “amazing building” with a flood-damaged organ he calls an “amazing instrument.”

Both buildings have sustained more than $20 million in damage, according to estimates provided by the city.
Chaffins calls both buildings historical, cultural attractions, and he says that the complications associated with that standing do not permit “a fast process.”

“It is not a simple process and you as a taxpayer do not want it to be a simple process,” Chaffins says of the repair of such important buildings. FEMA, he adds, doesn’t want to give the appearance of “ramming anything down anybody’s throat.”

Even so, he says much of the responsibility rests on the city, which must provide plans for repairs.

“The city is going to have to commit to a plan of action,” he says.

“But they have an old saying where I’m from: ‘It is what it is and it’s going to take as long as it takes,’’’ Chaffins says. “And there’s another saying where I’m from: ‘What do you do when you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time. Just like you eat anything else.’”

Chaffins hails from eastern Kentucky.


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