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After floods, states and counties are hoping for federal aid

A house in Douglas County near Amnicon Lake is completely surrounded by floodwaters in this aerial view last month. (file / News Tribune)

After June floods damaged roads and bridges throughout northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, states and counties are now playing the waiting game for federal aid.

On Thursday, Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, conduct preliminary damage assessments across seven northwest Wisconsin counties with over $11 million in damage from the June 16-17 storms.

Earlier in the week, Minnesota officials also requested FEMA conduct preliminary damage assessments for 36 counties and one tribal nation.

County emergency officials are hoping those assessments would result in a Presidential Disaster Declaration. If that happened, all public infrastructure repairs would be covered — 75 percent from the federal government and 25 percent from the state. With just a state declaration, which was issued by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on July 9, the state would cover 75 percent of total damage, with 25 percent left for local governments to cover.

"There's an advantage to both the counties and the state to get a federal declaration," BJ Kohlstedt, Lake County's emergency management director, said.

More than 6 inches of rain fell in Lake County north of Two Harbors during the June 16-17 storm. Damaged roads and washed-out culverts resulted in over $400,000 of repairs.

To qualify for federal aid, a county's total assessed damage must exceed its population multiplied by $3.68.

Additionally, statewide damage must total at least $7.7 million.

In St. Louis County, initial damage estimates are currently listed at $773,000, which is above the federal minimum based on population, but the figure is expected to rise as more cities and townships report damage and apply for aid, said Dana Kazel, spokesperson for St. Louis County.

Carlton County, reported over $1.2 million in damage, according to Steve Van Kekerix, the emergency manager for the sheriff's office. That includes road washouts and damage reported by Lake Country Power, but all roads have since reopened after temporary, emergency repairs were made, including the washout of Minnesota Highway 23 over the Nemadji River.

According to MnDOT spokeswoman Beth Petrowske, the highway's permanent repairs will be made next summer when two projects already scheduled for that stretch are completed.

While most damage hit the area during the June 16-17 storm, there has been damage in subsequent storms, too.

On Thursday, heavy early morning rain led to flooding near Mora and Hinckley, but it also resulted in road damage near Cook in St. Louis County, according to Kazal.

Any damage since the initial flooding in mid-June will be included in the state's damage assessment, both Kazal and Kohlstedt said.

"They are kind of hoping to see how many they can combine in one disaster," Kohlstedt said of the recent storms.

Northwestern Wisconsin was hit hardest during the June 16-17 storm, with Bayfield County reporting over $2 million in damage to municipal roads, $3.5 million in damage to the federal and state highways within the county and $4 million to U.S. Forest Service roads, according to Jan Victorson, Bayfield County's director of emergency management.

U.S. Highway 2 remains closed but that's the only major road closure that remains, Victorson said, as some town roads are still closed.

"I'm guessing most graders and dump trucks in the county are busy," Vitorson said.

Keith Kesler, the director of emergency management for Douglas County, estimates $5.2 million in damage to roads eligible for FEMA assistance, but figures that if everything were taken into account, it would be much higher.

"A majority of stuff is probably open by now, but there's still some issues," Kesler said. "There's still a lot of permanent repairs that need to be made."

Preliminary damage assessments by FEMA are scheduled to begin Thursday in Minnesota and Monday in Wisconsin.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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