FEMA rejects individual flood aid in Northland; state will appeal decision

Minnesota state officials said Wednesday they will appeal the federal government's decision that private property owners in the Northland, collectively, don't have enough flood damage to require federal assistance.

Minnesota state officials said Wednesday they will appeal the federal government's decision that private property owners in the Northland, collectively, don't have enough flood damage to require federal assistance.

W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Gov. Mark Dayton in a letter that damage to dwellings from the flooding that began June 19 "was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant the implementation of individual assistance."

Duluth Mayor Don Ness strongly disagreed.

"In my mind, this decision is nothing short of a travesty for our region and the people in need who were affected by this disaster," he said.

"In the past month, I've seen first-hand the devastation and the heartbreak," said Ness, calling on FEMA to reconsider.


"It's inconceivable that FEMA wouldn't reach out a helping hand to the people who have been impacted by this disaster," he said.

The state has 30 days to appeal FEMA's decision, and Dayton directed Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Kris Eide to file the necessary paperwork Wednesday.

Dayton made the request for federal individual assistance after a weeklong damage assessment by teams from FEMA and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The teams surveyed more than 1,100 homes and found, based on FEMA classifications, 17 destroyed, 154 with major damage, 419 with minor damage and 479 others at least affected by the floods.

A news release said the governor "decided to appeal after consulting state and local partners in the recovery."

"I believe this was the wrong decision, and I am deeply disappointed," Dayton said. "We will begin working on an appeal immediately."

However, the odds of mounting a successful appeal are quite slim, according to Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division, who said that getting FEMA to reverse course would "difficult to impossible."

Gordon said the state would need to conduct additional field research to make the case for an appeal. He noted that state and local officials had already done a thorough investigation, visiting with more than 1,100 victims of the flash flood. Any appeal also would threaten to hold up other forms of aid, Gordon said.

"We were told early on, when we met with staff from the Department of Homeland Security, that it would be a difficult threshold to meet for individual assistance," said Brian Belich, Carlton County's emergency management director. "So today's news wasn't surprising, but it was disappointing."


Belich said he believes assessors did a good job of documenting the level of damage in Carlton County.

"I feel confident about the quality of the work our staff did," he said. "If we didn't qualify for aid, it's not because we didn't put enough effort into it."

Dayton "is very disappointed in FEMA's decision, and he is currently working with state agencies to explore next steps," Dayton spokesman Bob Hume said in an e-mail.

Gordon said it's possible that businesses and individuals affected by the flood still might be able to qualify for low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration.

But Ness said many of the Northland's hardest-hit low-income households probably won't be considered eligible for loans. And most Northland properties lacked flood insurance.

"For many people, FEMA assistance was their only hope to buy a new furnace before winter comes. Now, that hope is lost," he said.

The United Way of Greater Duluth is administering an effort for a long-term flood recovery fund. President Paula Reed said the organization is less than a third of the way towards its $1 million goal, one that United Way officials had hoped to reach by the end of this month.

"We have seen a lot of individuals and organizations step forward, and recognize the need and respond to the requests for assistance," she said. "I think again, with FEMA's declaration, that fund is going to be more important than ever."


Reed said the flood also coincides with a greater burden on philanthropy from the recession. Her organization is trying simultaneously to meet its usual needs, sharpened by foreclosures and unemployment.

Businesses also stood to benefit if FEMA had agreed to offer individual assistance.

Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Restaurant, said his company would have sought FEMA support if it were available to flood victims. The chain's restaurant on Maple Grove Road in Duluth has remained closed since flood waters inundated it.

"Our losses were pretty large," said Daugherty, noting that the restaurant was not insured for flood damage. He estimated repairs will cost about $300,000, and the restaurant probably will lose an equal amount because of missed business.

"When you can get a helping hand during a time of adversity, that's a good thing," Daugherty said.

Ness pointed out that FEMA's individual assistance program offers only modest aid. He said the maximum a property owner could receive for a destroyed home is $31,400. In most places where the disaster aid has been offered, he said, individual payouts on claims have averaged between $3,000 and $4,000.

FEMA officials assessed damaged areas in Aitkin, Carlton, Crow Wing, Lake, Pine and St. Louis counties and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from July 11-18.

President Obama declared the region a federal disaster area on July 6, making 13 counties and the Fond du Lac Band available for federal assistance for public infrastructure repairs expected to total more than $108 million.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
What To Read Next
Get Local