FEMA Teams Assess Flooding in Minn.; Guard Presence Dwindles

August 24, 2007

Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency resumed their assessment of the flood damage in southeastern Minnesota on Thursday, with visits planned for Houston and Steele counties as well as the city of Stockton.

In visits on Wednesday FEMA officials did not get out of their vehicles to speak to any residents, although city officials took them to parts of the city that suffered the worst damage, and many residents still had not returned home.

FEMA spokeswoman Melynda Petrie said staying in a vehicle is standard procedure on damage tours. The team only wants to determine how much severe damage the city has suffered, she said.

“This is not where they go into detail,” she said.

Meanwhile, the National Guard was wrapping up its presence in the flood zone. About 240 Guard soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters had helped look for survivors on Sunday, and the soldiers remained to help control traffic and to provide security.

By Thursday morning just 24 members of a military police unit remained in Winona County, according to Guard spokeswoman Maj. Trish Baker. She said they were staying at the request of Winona County officials.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has asked President Bush to speed up a disaster declaration before the preliminary damage estimates come in.

“I can attest from two days of visiting many of the hardest-hit areas that the magnitude of this natural disaster far exceeds the thresholds needed to qualify for federal relief,” Pawlenty wrote in a letter to Bush.

The weekend’s flash floods killed seven people and damaged thousands of homes. FEMA teams were examining the need for individual assistance for homeowners, renters and small businesses owners as well as how much reimbursement local governments might need for repairs to their buildings, roads and emergency workers’ overtime.

Carlos Mitchell, FEMA’s preliminary damage assessment team leader for Minnesota flooding, said a finding of 100 to 150 damaged homes should add legitimacy to the state’s request for aid.

On Wednesday, one FEMA team headed to Rushford, a city of about 1,700, ringed by rugged bluffs about 130 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. Water that quickly rose to hip-deep in the streets tore through the city in the wee hours Sunday morning, washing out foundations and forcing people to flee their homes.

City Councilwoman Nancy Benson said she went into her basement to rescue belongings and a wall gave way. A wall of water came rushing at her. She would have died had her husband not pulled her up the stairs in time, she said.

The city’s business district was wiped out and about 277 homes had been destroyed. She said the city is “desperate” for federal aid.

“Our community has to be helped or we will die,” she said. “We’ll end up being a bedroom community.”

The team’s van inched through sludge-covered streets Wednesday as a steady rain fell. County officials stopped the van periodically to let the team gaze through the windows at water marks nearly shoulder-high on some buildings, houses missing foundations and the “Xs” spray painted on doors to signal the structure had been searched for survivors.

The van stopped briefly in front of the house shared by Frank Bearbower, 23, and his fiancee, Jennifer Himlie, 26. Part of the house’s foundation had been washed away, leaving a pit. The only good news on his block Wednesday was that workers dropped off a port-a-pottie on the corner for neighbors to share.

Bearbower said he doesn’t know what good a federal loan would do. The couple’s finances are tight and they already face a $718 monthly mortgage payment.

“We might have to walk away (from the house),” Himlie said.

The criteria for individual assistance is not clear cut, Mitchell said, adding that federal aid covers only uninsured losses and he doesn’t want anyone to get their hopes up.

Petrie said the FEMA inspections were just the first step in a process that could take days or weeks. The data gathered is sent to the state as the basis for its request for a disaster declaration from the president.

A preliminary American Red Cross survey identified about 4,200 homes in the area affected by the flood, including 256 complete losses, 338 with major damage and 475 that are still inaccessible.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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