Iowa Lawmakers to Focus on Flood Recovery Despite Economic Concerns

January 7, 2009

Despite a state budget crisis and a crumbling national economy, Iowa legislators will nonetheless take on one of the most expensive problems in state history–flood recovery.

No one is sure of the price tag, but all agree it’s enormous. And it comes at a time when Gov. Chet Culver is cutting the current budget and legislators are facing a shortfall in the upcoming budget that could top $600 million.

“There couldn’t be a worse time for this to happen,” said state Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids. “So here we are. It’s just difficult.”

How bad are the flood recovery numbers?

Officials estimate the state’s total damage from summer 2008 flooding and tornadoes at $8 billion to $10 billion.

In the public sector alone, state agencies and non-profits estimate about $850 million in damage. The state puts statewide housing damage at about $900 million. And the state hasn’t estimated the damage to businesses.

The costliest hit was Cedar Rapids, where the city estimated $5.6 billion in total damage, a figure that includes the cost of continuing operations affected by flooding.

To offset some of the costs, the state has received about $1.3 billion in federal funding. It’s using that money to chip away at its problems, especially housing. About $85 million of the federal dollars will be used for a housing and small business recovery initiative designed for homeowners and businesses to get forgivable loans to assist home repair, help pay mortgages and rebuild businesses.

State Senate President Michael Gronstal acknowledged that for many Iowans, memories of the floodwaters that inundated Cedar Rapids and much of eastern Iowa were fading. Still, the state has no choice but to help flood victims rebuild their lives, said Gronstal, a Democrat whose Council Bluffs district was far removed from the disaster.

“It is not forgotten for the several thousand families not living in their homes,” Gronstal said. “I would hate to go back to Cedar Rapids in three years and have it look like the 9th Ward of New Orleans looks.”

State Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, said the state needs to consider “the long-term cost of inaction.”

“With the budget year we’re going to have this year, which is very tight, it’s going to be important and I think a compelling case,” Olson said. “While there’s some short-term investment that needs to be done, when you look at the long-term cost of inaction, I think it really makes the case of getting the investment into the community.”

Olson argues that legislators must address two categories of legislation: those dealing with policy and those dealing with dollars. Aside from deciding who gets what, Olson said he will support regionalization proposals that take the responsibility for flood management from cities and put it in the hands of the region or state.

Twelve recommendations by the Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission, a 15-member group overseeing flood recovery planning, set the framework for work this upcoming session. Led by Iowa National Guard Adjutant Gen. Ron Dardis, the panel advised looking beyond the immediate crisis and considering how flood damage can be repaired in ways that build an infrastructure that will benefit Iowa for decades into the future.

Dardis said he thinks legislators from unaffected parts of the state will support funding for flood recovery.

“All I had to do was live it and see it from day to day,” Dardis said.

Olson said he expects the support of legislators from western Iowa and parts of the state unaffected by floods because it’s essential to the state’s economic survival. Horn agreed but said he doesn’t expect legislators to simply throw money at the problem.

Horn described some neighborhoods near downtown Cedar Rapids as a ghost town, “where you go for blocks and no one’s living there, the windows are busted out, the basements have fallen in.”

Horn said he will consider this legislative session a success if by next fall there are people living in those houses _ and paying income and property taxes.

“This has a state impact, too,” Horn said. “When people have lost jobs and no income, they’re not paying sales tax, they’re not paying property tax.”

So more than six months after the floods washed out swaths of southeast Iowa, Olson and Horn said it will be the responsibility of legislators from those areas to put flood recovery at the top of the state’s agenda.

“I think that’s really going to be the main role of legislators from disaster-affected communities,” Olson said. “Talking about the needs that are still pressing, and what the consequences are, long-term, of not meeting those needs.”

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