USDA Announces $308M for Disaster-Stricken States

By BILL DRAPER | January 20, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is adding more than $300 million to the massive amount of financial assistance federal agencies have doled out in response to an unusually intense year of natural disasters, officials announced Wednesday.

The money, from three emergency funds administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, is more than double the $136.6 million paid from the funds a year ago. It will go toward repairing farmland and associated property damaged by flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said natural disasters impacted 55 million acres of farmland nationwide in 2011.

“There have been years that have had more intensive damage in a particular geographic area, but what’s unique about last year is that virtually every part of the country was affected,” Vilsack said.

The most aid is headed to Utah and Missouri, which combined will take in more than $110 million, or more than one-third of the total announced Wednesday.

States rely on local conservation and farm service offices to approve fund applications, which are then forwarded on to the national USDA offices. Vilsack spokesman Matt Herrick said each state largely received the money it requested.

Utah asked for $60 million to deal with two rounds of flooding, including in the southern part of the state in December 2010 and spring flooding that inundated farmers in northern and central Utah following a record snowpack, said Bronson Smart, state conservation engineer for the conservation service.

Smart said state and county officials had received tens of millions of dollars from the conservation service to fund dozens of projects following similar flooding disasters in 2005, and have since learned the value of seeking help from the emergency funds.

“Our counties and cities have come to rely on us quite a bit,” Smart said. After the 2005 flooding, “we spent $80 or $90 million … People saw that these were good investments.”

Missouri suffered months of flooding along the Missouri River after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized unprecedented releases from reservoirs in the northern river basin all summer to deal with unexpectedly heavy rain in May and above-average mountain snowpack. Farmers in the Missouri Bootheel, meanwhile, saw their crops swamped when the Army Corps of Engineers exploded a levee to relieve water pressure on an upriver town in Illinois. The intentional breach sent water cascading over thousands of acres of prime farmland.

Missouri will receive around $50 million, of which $35 million will come from the watershed program and the rest from the conservation fund. That’s in addition to millions of dollars Missouri already has received in aid from such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Corps of Engineers.

Harold Decker, assistant state conservationist for water resources in Missouri, said most of the watershed money will go toward clearing and redeveloping drainage ditches filled with silt and debris by flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

“Without that work, those systems aren’t going to function,” Decker said. “If ditches aren’t draining properly, it retards plant growth and the drainage of the plants and lowers production.”

Slightly more than $215 million of the total aid announced Wednesday comes from the Emergency Watershed Program, about $80 million will come from the Emergency Conservation Program and nearly $12 million is from the FSA’s Emergency Forest Restoration Program.

The money is distributed based on local agencies’ applications and ability to pay 25 percent of the cost of requested projects, according to the USDA. Paying the balance could prove to be the difficult part for hard-hit communities already struggling to recover from disasters and the economic downturn.

In New York, which is set to receive $41.8 million – including about $37.8 million in watershed funds – money is earmarked for repairing erosion and other damage left behind by back-to-back late summer tropical storms Irene and Lee.

Dennis DeWeese, acting state conservationist with the conservation service in New York, said 51 communities have asked for assistance and damage assessments have been completed for 15. The agency’s staff of 25, mostly engineers, had visited 160 sites by the end of last week and is continuing work that may extend into the Adirondacks.

But he said it will be difficult to ask already cash-strapped towns and villages to pay their share.

“A lot of these municipalities are overwhelmed,” DeWeese said.

In addition to flooding, 2011 was a big year for tornadoes, including record outbreaks in the South and a monster storm that leveled a large portion of Joplin, Mo.

Alabama is scheduled to get just more than $6 million in assistance for tornado recovery, followed by nearly $2.1 million in Georgia.

Alabama’s allocation is due in large part to losses in the poultry industry, said state deputy commissioner of agriculture Brett Hall. Chickens died when their houses blew away or during of power outages following the storms, he said.

Vilsack said the emergency money is being used to help agricultural interests beyond what is covered by crop insurance. He said the USDA paid out $8.6 billion in crop insurance payments last year, and $17.2 billion over the past three years.

(Associated Press writers Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City, George M. Walsh in Albany, N.Y., and Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.)

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