September 22, 2010
Over the weekend, the Governor announced disaster declarations for several counties, making help available in areas ravaged by storms. Local officials hoping the same declaration would be made in Western Wisconsin won’t likely see this happen. Damage estimates failed to add up making us ineligible for assistance.
When disaster strikes the first action by local officials is to protect life and property. People are rescued, roads are opened and power is restored. Of the dozens of locals with whom I have spoken no one knew the mayor, town chair or village president also has the job of estimating damages and sending reports to county officials. No one realized without damage estimates, disaster declarations could not happen.
Most county emergency officials got on the phone after the storms and let people know they needed paperwork. One did not.
Consequently, when estimates for the storms of mid August were sent to Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM), one county’s numbers were missing. Without the paperwork, not only was no assistance available to that county, but the entire region’s assistance hung in the balance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had inspected other areas and, in some cases, lowered damage estimates reducing the total below the required threshold. We all needed the missing numbers.
Last Friday, more than a month after the storm, FEMA was finally in the county whose numbers had been missing. It was my second day with FEMA. The first I spent with three very competent men. Representing county, state and federal government, the men worked together and helped the local officials do a careful assessment of damage.
But what happened there was, evidently, not to be repeated. After talking with local people across our area, a grim picture emerged. Officials at WEM and FEMA did not communicate with local people. Clerks were not given the information they needed to make estimates. Some estimates were missing or wildly inaccurate. Damaged areas were not adequately inspected. Town chairs were not notified when FEMA arrived and discretion given state and federal officials was not used to help.
For example, I was told FEMA had discretion to look at how much was left in the town budget. But when a town chair related he had an entire budget of $190,000 and a bridge replacement of over $200,000 he was brushed off. Instead a state official shoved him a copy of the state statute- a page of Wisconsin’s law book. “Maybe this will help,” she said. The page was indecipherable.
When asked why one county had its estimates dramatically reduced, I was told many projects did not make the $1,000 minimum. Officials had discretion to combine damage made into one project to make the $1,000 minimum. “If we can see the areas of damage, they can be counted as one,” I was told.
The county is very hilly. One road had ten ‘wash-outs’ within a half of a mile. But twisty roads made it impossible to see one area to the next. So a county with hills is penalized over a flat county?
A local mayor was discouraged when his carefully prepared damage estimate was taken apart by FEMA. The officials told him why one expense after another did not qualify because it didn’t fit into correct categories.
The frustrated mayor was told sand bagging the edges of the city-owned lake didn’t count because the property being protected was private. Rescue efforts to save vaccines didn’t count even under the ‘health and safety’ category because the clinic was private!
We pleaded with FEMA officials to count the cost of fixing the lake that had significantly silted-in because of the storm. FEMA said the “sediment doesn’t hurt anything” and didn’t fit into any category.
“We’ve got categories,” the FEMA official told the mayor.
In the van on the way home, the government officials joked with each other about the parking tickets they were going to have parked all day in a two-hour spot.
“We’ll just put it under our ‘parking’ on our expense account,” said one and they all laughed.
FEMA’s got categories.