June 2012 flood anniversary: Local, federal damage reports differLast June’s flood damaged plenty of homes, but if you want to know just how many … that depends on whose numbers you trust.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Last June’s flood damaged plenty of homes, but if you want to know just how many … that depends on whose numbers you trust.
There’s a big discrepancy between what local inspectors documented after the flood and what teams reporting to the Federal Emergency Management Agency found.
Local assessors say the flood destroyed 72 homes, whereas the federal government puts the loss at 17 homes. Unlike the local estimates, the federal numbers don’t include damage to property in Wisconsin. Still, the omission of Wisconsin hardly begins to explain the difference.
In Douglas County, 320 homes were reported damaged by the flood, with 16 suffering severe damage and another 304 sustaining more modest damage, said Drew Digby, a regional long-term flood-recovery coordinator for Carlton County.
Local assessors reported 295 dwellings sustained severe damage from the flood that diminished their value by 50 percent or more. But teams reporting to the federal government found that just 154 houses were severely damaged.
All told, FEMA documented 479 homes that were affected by the flood in Minnesota. That’s 85 percent fewer than the 3,145 homes that local assessors say sustained reportable damage.
Julie Anderson, an external affairs coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said she places more credence in the statistics that were compiled with the help of staff from Homeland Security, Small Business Administration and FEMA than those from purely local sources.
She said that many of the local inspectors involved in preliminary assessment efforts were well-intentioned but were doubtlessly tired and hard-pressed to cover as much ground as they could as quickly as possible.
Anderson said the information compiled for FEMA was the result of thorough door-to-door visits to 1,100 homes over the course of a week.
But Digby contends the initial damage report based on preliminary assessments from local assessors has proven a truer indicator.
“There’s no way we would have had more than 800 people applying for disaster assistance loans from the SBA (Small Business Administration) if the numbers that FEMA reported were accurate,” he said.
Digby noted that local assessors visited more homes than did the teams compiling data for FEMA.
David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said Mayor Don Ness and city staff were disappointed when FEMA determined that the level of damage to private property was insufficient to qualify individual homeowners for federal disaster relief.
Montgomery said getting a handle on damage to private property was no easy task.
“I think that a lot of damaged furnaces and water heaters were not identified at first,” he said.
“Some people were reluctant to come forward. This is a very ‘can-do’ region, but as time went on, the magnitude of the situation crept up on a lot of people until they needed help,” Montgomery said. “It speaks to the character of our region, but in the long run, it hurt us.”
Digby said he believes the teams that assessed private property damage for FEMA acted in good faith but used a different set of criteria.
“There are different ways of doing damage assessments,” he said. “I’d be willing to say it’s not as much of an exact science as people might think.”
Digby said it would be difficult to fault anyone for failing to anticipate all the repairs that would be needed after the flood.
“One of the tough things was how hidden some of the damage was,” he said, pointing to foundation, drainage and mechanical issues that were slow to emerge.
“The spring thaw revealed additional substantial damage. It was heart-breaking as people dug into some of that work this year and realized the extent of it,” Digby said. “I think there was an honest disagreement about the scope of the flood damage, but in the long run, we’re finding local assessors were closer to the mark.”