Northland flood victims: Help marred by disorganizationUnprecedented flooding across the Northland in June brought an overwhelming response. Yet some residents at the receiving end say the effort came up short.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Unprecedented flooding across the Northland in June brought an overwhelming response.
Government and nonprofit agencies, local officials and volunteers from far away worked to help individuals and businesses beleaguered by the flood. They set up websites and relief centers, knocked on doors, sat in on countless meetings.
Yet some residents at the receiving end say the effort came up short.
There was miscommunication, misinformation and confusion, they say. Four months after the flood, they feel forgotten and abandoned, not much closer than they were at the start to recovery.
“It’s a real mess,” said Trudy Fredericks, who with her husband, Ryan Murphy, received an e-mail from the city of Duluth last week saying the mudslide-threatened house they built in the Fond du Lac neighborhood would be demolished.
“I would love to see the city step up and say that they did not respond well, and they’re going to do better, and they’re going to do better now,” she said. “Because I haven’t seen it, and it’s been disappointing. … Its leaders are supposed to be better than this.”
Fredericks said she was particularly disappointed with Mayor Don Ness. The mayor came to one neighborhood community meeting, she said, but turned down “multiple” requests to return. “We really needed his leadership,” she said.
In an e-mail, Ness said he had been to the neighborhood six or seven times since the flood. After the initial community meeting, he said, most of the follow-up meetings were of a technical nature on specific issues.
But those meetings produced confusion, Fredericks said. Representatives from the city’s Building Safety Department, from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources didn’t have the answers residents sought.
“When they didn’t have the answers, and they came back to a second meeting and still didn’t have the answers, or they were giving bad information, that’s when we needed the person who’s in charge of all of that, Mayor Ness, to lead the situation and step in and say: I will get the answers,” Fredericks said.
A good meeting
Laurel Sanders, who lives on Cass Street in the neighborhood with her husband, John Donahue, said at least one meeting with a city official was helpful. That came after some residents who had made electrical repairs on their homes were told the work they had done wasn’t in compliance with flood regulations and they’d have to start over.
About 10 residents met with Daniel Fanning, the city’s community relations officer, and he was able to clarify the situation, Sanders said. For those with more than 50 percent damage to their homes, compliance was required; for those with less than
50 percent damage, it was just a recommendation.
“There was good faith on everybody’s part,” Sanders said.
Sanders was philosophical about some of the confusion at other meetings.
“We’d have weekly meetings, and the different agencies would be there trying to wade through what to do, and everybody was getting information and misinformation,” she said with a laugh. “Nobody had dealt with it (before). We’re not an area like Fargo that floods frequently. Nobody had dealt with this, or anticipated dealing with this.”
David Montgomery, the city’s chief administrative officer, said he understands residents’ frustrations. But he defended the city’s efforts to help the neighborhood recover. The city coordinated the work of numerous agencies and volunteer groups to rebuild Fond du Lac, he said.
City officials addressed all of the questions residents asked, but they
didn’t always have the answers, Montgomery said. That was largely because the city was waiting to see if the Legislature would take action in a special session (it did), and if the Federal Emergency Management Agency would declare the region a personal disaster area (it didn’t).
The latter was a blow to the city’s hopes. “FEMA not declaring it a personal emergency really complicated things, I think, for a lot of homeowners,” Montgomery said. “Because it closed off avenues for assistance that could have been very helpful.”
The Legislature’s actions enabled about 20 homeowners whose properties were destroyed or substantially damaged to apply to the Minnesota Recovery Task Force, Montgomery said. That makes the properties potentially eligible for buyouts, with the land being returned to open space. The deadline to apply was Wednesday, and Fredericks and Murphy were among those who did. But the process is likely to take a few months, Montgomery said.
Much of the frustration residents are experiencing stems from how much time such things take, Montgomery said.
“I can fully understand people’s frustration,” he said. “They want to get back into their house right now. And these processes, unfortunately, have to go through all the steps to get there.”
Drew Digby, who is serving as regional long-term recovery coordinator, said time has become a factor.
“Obviously, it’s already pretty cold,” Digby said. “A lot of people are having to make decisions about, even if they have the loan, can they close the loan fast enough” to get needed work done before winter.
It’s not just in Duluth that flood victims are frustrated with the bureaucracy.
A case in point is the residents of Cathedral Pines Drive, which borders the Moose Horn River in Sturgeon Lake.
Loren Matson, who was flooded out of his home, said he and other residents on the street received letters from FEMA a couple of weeks before the flood saying they had 45 days to purchase flood insurance. His insurance agent was working on that when the flood occurred, he said.
But when Rick and Pam Grey, who also live on the same street, filed a claim under the flood insurance policy they’d held since 2009, they received a $15,000 advance and then were denied further payment.
“They said … according to FEMA, Sturgeon Lake has never been in compliance,” an incredulous Grey said. The company, Auto-Owners Insurance, said the Greys never should have been able to buy flood insurance.
John Lindaver, a spokesman for the Michigan-based company, said the insurer merely acts as a conduit for the government. He couldn’t explain how the Greys had been able to buy flood insurance.
“There’s a lot of confusion about flood insurance,” Lindaver said.
Hannah Vick, a FEMA spokeswoman in Duluth, said she couldn’t comment on cases involving specific homeowners. “I can tell you that our folks are aware of it,” she added.
Even when flood insurance is approved, it’s not an easy process, Sanders said.
“You have to meet the adjuster, wait for the adjuster, and then they send you a check,” she said. “And then you go to the bank with the check, and they go: Oh, now you have to send this … to your mortgage company. And they will send you back all of it except what you owe them. And then you have to meet and have the contractors sign for what they’re going to do.”
Despite frustrations, the region has made significant progress since the flood, Digby said.
By the end of business on Oct. 21, $6.14 million in Small Business Administration loans had been approved for area homeowners affected by the flood, Digby said. Some people are essentially “camping out” in their homes, he said, but, “There’s no one that we know of that’s living in an absolutely dangerous situation.”
In Carlton County, a task force has been formed to canvass flood-hit regions and make sure no one has fallen through the cracks, he said.
Flood victims have weathered the post-flood storm with resilience, Digby said.
“I don’t want to sound too optimistic, because it’s really tough for a lot of people out there, but people did a really good job of going through the application process that’s not always easy to understand,” he said. “The flood survivors deserve a lot of credit.”
Disaster case managers are available for people who still need assistance in the wake of the June flood.
If you need help, call Flood Homes With Hope at (218) 499-9480, or visit the website: floodhomeswithhope.org.