State Agencies Continue Flood Recovery Work

by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News

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Sept. 25, 2019, 6:45 a.m.

Six months out from historic flooding across eastern Nebraska, state agencies are working with the federal government on long-term recovery strategies and to find resources for Nebraska communities. Recovery still has a long way to go.

Before flooding even started in March, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency was preparing for disaster. They worked with local emergency managers, as well as with federal partners. Now, six months later, they’re still dealing with remaining floods.

Bryan Tuma is assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

“The unfortunate part of this is it just won’t stop, and that’s made it really challenging for a lot of folks," Tuma said. "If it would just kind of level off so we could mitigate the issues and have some opportunity to actually focus just on recovery as opposed to continually respond, that would make a big difference.”

Tuma works with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service to better understand current and future flooding along Nebraska’s rivers. He said at the moment even weather experts don’t know what’s coming next.

“It’s really difficult for them to predict what the winter weather pattern’s gonna look like," Tuma said. "This ongoing period of volatility in the weather is probably going to persist for a while.”

In the meantime, NEMA is working with up to 600 FEMA employees stationed in Nebraska to secure reimbursement for repairs to flood-damaged areas. In this case, they’re working with the public assistance program, which funds repairs to public infrastructure. FEMA employees write up damage as “projects.”

“So a project is typically intended to address a specific issue," Tuma said. "For infrastructure, it might be the bridge. Or it may be in some cases they can lump multiple projects, so if you have a number of county roads, they’ll go by the miles of county road, identify that infrastructure, that’s a project.”

In addition to federal employees, NEMA is also adding to their own staff.

“What we expect to see is as we move through this recovery period, we will over time accumulate more work to do on the disaster, so we will right-size the staff as we go along, bringing new people in, getting them trained, getting them up to speed, so that they can help with the recovery process,” Tuma said.

Eventually, NEMA expects to add 17 new positions to help with disaster recovery. The money for those positions will come from FEMA management funds. Nebraska communities have four years to apply for and use FEMA funds.

“And when we look at the scope of this event, quite honestly we think it’s probably going to go beyond four years," Tuma said. "So in all reality, those people that we are hiring for this disaster will probably be working on this disaster or new disasters as they come along.”

The impact of flooding extends beyond the public infrastructure projects covered by the public assistance program. Some individuals will get help through FEMA’s individual assistance program, but Tuma said flooding also made one of Nebraska’s existing challenges worse.

“Our state’s no different than many other states. We have a shortage of affordable housing," Tuma said. "The shortage existed on what we’ll call a blue sky day, and it’s made even worse when you deal with a disaster situation.”

Working to solve affordable housing challenges falls partly to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

Dan Curran is interim director of the department. He explained how flooding decreased the amount of affordable housing in Nebraska.

“In the flood plain a lot of times the kinds of housing that’s there are for more low-income people, generally speaking," Curran said. "And so having that particular segment of the population get hurt doubles a lot of the pain the communities feel because you have the people with the least amount of resources affected the most.”

Flooding also affected some elderly people who own homes in the flood plain. In some cases, FEMA funds can only help these individuals if they move to an area with less risk for flooding, but they may not have the means to do so.

“When you get to a certain point in your life, that if the house you have is worth a hundred thousand dollars and building a new house is two hundred thousand, the ability to take on a mortgage gets to be very complicated,” Curran said.

Curran also said the Department of Economic Development has already used three million dollars from the Nebraska Affordable Housing trust fund to help six communities affected by flooding. Curran also anticipates that Nebraska will receive disaster recovery funding through the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in the near future.

An additional challenge for NEMA and Economic Development as they work to help Nebraska communities recover is climate change. This may not be the last big flood.

“We’ve had a long stretch where we’ve been fairly lucky to not have these kind of events happen," Curran said. "But we could be going into an era where we could see more of this kind of event, and communities looking and developing resiliency plans so that you have a plan that gets you to where you want to be so you can be a strong community for decades to come.”

The planning that goes into building strong communities will continue long after the last of this year’s flooding has dried up.