Violent Weather Taking Toll on States

 

Iowa began the year without many money worries. The state treasury was flush with higher than expected tax revenues, in part because farmers were prospering from high corn and soybean prices. There was even a modest budget surplus.

Then came weeks of damaging tornadoes and flooding that killed 18 people, drove 38,000 people from their homes and destroyed farms, businesses, roads, bridges and sewers. Now Gov. Chet Culver (D) is considering calling a special session of the Legislature to determine the state's role in repairing the damage.

"You'll come back better," President Bush told Culver and local officials in Cedar Rapids on June 19. "Sometimes it's hard to see it when you're this close to the deal."

Iowa was one of 17 states whacked this year by an unusually severe outbreak of storms, with financial, public safety, infrastructure and environmental repercussions that could take state officials years to resolve. The tornadoes and floods also will bring attention once again to the federal government's response to disasters after the Hurricane Katrina debacle almost three years ago, emergency management officials say.


Hurricane season started June 1, so more states could face disasters. But already 2008 has been unusual, meteorologists say, because of the frequency of fast-moving storms that have occurred at night in populated areas. About 60 people a year die in tornadoes, but this year 118 have been killed, the most in 10 years, according to the National Weather Service.

"The year started out active and we've had a number of unfortunate, tragic events. That's what has made this year notable," said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the federal Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma.


The burst of violent weather began on Feb. 5, the day of the Super Tuesday primaries, when 87 tornadoes swept across Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama, killing 56 people. Since then, tornadoes have struck Georgia, Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Multiple heavy thunderstorms have pelted Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, leading to flooding.

In many of those states, governors, lawmakers, first responders and a wide range of state agency officials are dealing with a host of short- and long-term issues, ranging from finding the money to pay state troopers for overtime to managing the Mississippi River to avoid future catastrophes. The immediate priority for states is making sure that the federal government comes through with adequate money and workers to assist in recovery. Initial damage estimates in Iowa have topped $3 billion. Wisconsin officials estimated June's storms caused more than $470 million in damage. In Nebraska, which was hit by four major storms since Memorial Day, Gov. Dave Heineman (R) pegged the damage just to infrastructure at $22 million.

Governors must first convince Federal Emergency Management Agency officials of the need for federal aid by assessing the damage and determining that the state and local governments don't have the resources to respond to the disaster on their own.

Iowa was a clear case for the president to declare a major disaster, which triggered several federal aid programs to state and local governments, families, individuals and businesses. The federal government usually pays 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding infrastructure; state and local governments pick up the rest.

Other programs include a combination of direct federal grants and low interest loans to cover such things as renting a different place to live, repairing damage to homes or rebuilding them, buying cleanup items and paying for medical or funeral costs.

On Bush's June 19 Iowa trip, FEMA administrator David Paulison said although the full cost of the Iowa flooding will not be known for some time, the state could tap the $4 billion in the federal disaster relief fund. Congress appropriated another $2.65 billion mostly for the flooding in Iowa but also to meet future disaster needs in other states.

No state suffered as much damage as Iowa, but all 17 affected by tornadoes and floods are eligible for grants and loans from two federal programs designed to help individuals and communities affected by disasters.

Some states are denied help in some counties, often prompting appeals through governors and members of Congress. FEMA officials recently turned down Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's request for aid to Georgia's Cherokee County, where a tornado sliced a five-mile path May 20. The county did not meet the federal threshold of at least $10 million in damage statewide from the storm.

Federal dollars are also available for infrastructure repair from a $100 million emergency fund and supplemental appropriations from Congress, said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. But that money can be spent only on roads that are part of the federal highway system, he said, which means states could be looking for ways to pay for fixing damaged state and local roads.

Dams, bridges, roads, levees, water and sewage treatment plants, parks and other public buildings will need expensive overhauls, especially in flood-struck Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Some of that work cannot be put off. Wisconsin transportation secretary Frank Busalacchi ordered $900,000 in emergency funds last week to build a temporary bypass on Interstate 94, which connects Milwaukee and Chicago with Minneapolis. Flooding had threatened a stretch of the freeway, and the bypass was needed to avert a 113-mile detour.

State officials may decide to add more bridge and dam safety inspectors in the wake of storms that exposed unsafe conditions in states such as Indiana, which has two inspectors overseeing 1,100 dams. Early this month, the state and Army Corps of Engineers inspected 106 high-hazard dams, finding seven that required emergency action.

State lawmakers may also be asked to help pick up the cost of fixing local sewage and water treatment plants impaired by the storms. The federal government already is requiring many local governments to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their sewage plants to reduce pollution.

This year's tornadoes set off a policy debate among emergency management officials in some states about the effectiveness of warning sirens intended to alert people to take cover. In Michigan, high winds had already moved into the Detroit suburbs before sirens sounded in Oakland County earlier this month. In Nebraska, some Omaha residents complained that emergency officials did not activate the sirens fast enough.

The twisters prompted members of Congress to criticize the Bush administration, which had promised the states a new national emergency alert system by June 1 to coincide with the hurricane season.

The new system, called the integrated public alert and warning system, or IPAWS, is supposed to improve the existing emergency warning system by integrating new technologies such as the Internet, pagers and cell phones with TV and radio. One result is the ability to notify residents of an emergency by calling them with a recording, also known as "reverse 911."

Had the system been in place this year, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said, lives could have been saved. "Tornadoes pop up quickly, and getting a timely warning can literally be the difference between life and death."

Lance A. Craver, the federal IPAWS program director, said while considerable progress has been made on the system, some states have been slow to take advantage of already allocated grants to implement parts of the system.

Larger questions posed by this year's storms probably will fall to the next president. Working with state and local officials, the new administration will review the flood control system - the levees, flood walls and reservoirs - of the upper Mississippi River. Part of that review will be determining the extent to which increased development of the flood plain contributed to this year's disaster by removing water-absorbing wetlands.

On his trip to Iowa, Bush praised what he called "the tough minded people" of Iowa. Iowa State University economist David Swenson, who said he is usually pessimistic, said he also believes the state will bounce back. Agriculture is a relatively small percentage of all the goods and services that Iowa produces, he stressed.

"We haven't been devastated," he said. "This isn't Katrina. There are no floating bodies. We don't have ineptness across the board."

 
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