One Year Later Recovery from Flood Slow in Kansas Town

July 25, 2008

A year after a refinery oil spill into floodwaters blanketed a third of this southeast Kansas town, little remains in the area that was damaged.

The oil-drenched houses are gone, and only a few homeowners have rebuilt. About 1,000 displaced residents have scattered across surrounding towns, and nearly half of the 70 affected businesses have yet to reopen.

U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, in Coffeyville talked to local leaders snd blamed the mortgage crisis and struggling economy for the slow progress in rebuilding.

“Our concern is keep the process moving forward. Once a problem like this gets stagnated, it is hard to get the momentum back up. … It is going to be a long time before this community can really recover,” said Tiahrt, R-Kan.

The city was flooded when the Verdigris River topped its banks in late June 2007. A malfunction while workers were trying to shut down the inundated Coffeyville Resources refinery caused about 71,000 gallons of oil to leak into the floodwaters, further complicating the city’s recovery efforts.

Since then, the refinery has purchased and demolished 338 homes and bought 197 vacant lots and 17 commercial buildings.

Only about a half dozen of the homes have been rebuilt, said City Manager Jeff Morris. In one part of town, construction stopped on seven homes when money ran out, he said.

The credit meltdown also has affected developers’ ability to borrow money to build apartment complexes.

“This community has had challenges even before the flood getting housing,” Tiahrt said. “Housing in southeast Kansas is a challenge.”

But unlike places such as Greensburg, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency put in a massive mobile home park for residents after a tornado nearly destroyed the south-central Kansas town in May 2007, displaced Coffeyville residents have scattered to find places to live.

“We wound up with just 13 FEMA trailers,” Morris said. “We struggled to work with FEMA finding a suitable site for FEMA housing.”

Two of the town’s four mobile home parks were flooded, and the agency refused to allow trailers to be put on any of the properties that had been flooded, he said.

“They found solutions in some of the neighboring communities. We are not as remote as Greensburg,” Morris said.

Before the flood, 11,060 people lived in Coffeyville, but city officials are uncertain how many remain. School enrollments have not noticeably declined, suggesting many families have found nearby housing.

The refinery buyouts helped speed the demolition of flooded houses. In other communities affected only by flooding that month, many structures are still waiting to be torn down, Morris said.

The refinery spent $50 million on the buyouts. It also suffered about $86.5 million in damages itself.

“I think they have been good corporate citizens,” Morris added.

Tiahrt praised the response from federal agencies in a news conference held across the street from where work was under way on a flood-damaged grocery store.

Montgomery County received $7.8 million in individual assistance and $8.6 million in public assistance, according to figures compiled by his office. Coffeyville received 1.2 million in public assistance.

“FEMA did a lot better here than in Louisiana after Katrina,” Tiahrt said.

But city leaders said later that they were frustrated that Congress has not done more to help.

“Other than FEMA, we received very little federal assistance,” Morris said, adding that Congress more readily appropriate funds for other disasters.

“It is not glamorous enough,” he said of flooding. “It doesn’t catch the headlines.”

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