As the one-year anniversary of the June 20 flash flood in Duluth and surrounding area approaches, flood victims are still struggling and waiting. Victims are still in holding patterns waiting on the federal government to release buyout funds. Buyouts have been offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for people whose homes are so structurally damaged by the flood they are deemed unlivable. The DNR funds only cover specific areas in the flood areas. The flood hit the Pine County area late on June 20 into June 21.
Greg Koivisto and his wife Dee are still renting east of Barnum. Their home in Rutledge is still in ruins after being changed to a flood way by FEMA. Being in a flood way means they are not allowed to live there during the buyout wait. Greg Koivisto said, “We are sitting here stuck in our blind spot.” He went on to say that, on top of rent, they must keep current on both their mortgage and insurance in order to stay qualified for the buyout. Koivisto went on to say, “It’s getting tougher and tougher all the time. It’s not a good situation. Something has to be done to hurry it along. They gotta make it right.”
Pine County gives all the victims and involved cities a weekly update through Pine County Auditor Kelly Schroeder’s office.
Schroeder said all of the DNR funding has arrived but there are only nine properties in Pine County that qualify for their funding at 100 percent. They will be moving forward on those buyouts according to Schroeder. Schroeder said the DNR funding only covers 25 percent of the remaining buyouts. She said they are waiting on FEMA to forward the rest of those funds (75 percent) before payment can be made.
Schroeder said the county hired a new flood recovery coordinator, Matt Futon, mid-April. He finished the county’s application to FEMA for the county by the end of April according to Schroeder. After the county sent in an updated county mitigation plan mid-May, Schroeder said, “All our stuff is done.” The mitigation plan was due for update on May 27. A mitigation plan is intended to identify policies and actions that can be implemented over the long term to reduce risk and further losses in the case of a disaster. The update had to be in place to receive the FEMA funds. The buyouts had to be put on the back burner according to Schroeder. She said the title services and purchase agreements for the buyout properties are all finished but cannot be signed by the owners until the federal funding arrives.
The Gertzens, Jan and Denny, said they were also interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio on the situation on June 12. Jan Gertzen said that even though they were covered by flood insurance, they are still fighting the insurance company for the last 25 percent of their claim. The original lawyer they retained did not follow through — they lost four months time — but they are still continuing to fight the battle with a new lawyer.
Jan Gertzen said, “The day Futon was hired he was to our home to see us.” She said they had originally been told, because they had insurance, they were not qualified for the buyout. Now they have been informed that they could be a part of it and are considering it. Gertzen said, “We are the forgotten community. A lot of folks are staying in their homes because the buyout would not pay off their mortgages. They are not trusting in the government because we’ve been blind sided so many times.”
Gertzen added, “In my opinion, these small communities can’t handle it (flood emergencies) so the state should have stepped in.” She said the local residents have not had any recent looting problems of properties due to neighbors watching each other’s property.
Another Sturgeon Lake resident, Dody Ockwig and her husband Bob, who live on Market Road, did not lose their home as they had previously feared in January. She said they were able to catch up on their mortgage and re-qualified for the Small Business Association (SBA) loan to help further the repair on their home. Unfortunately, she said, they now have to pay on two loans. Ockwig also said, “We are staying in our home as far as I know.” Ockwig stated the buyout offer on their property was too low and would not have paid off their mortgage.
In a phone conversation with Sturgeon Lake Mayor Thomas Helfman, he said, “I’m glad it (the flood) is over and I hope to never see that again.” He said it was amazing how long it takes to get through the whole process. Helfman went on to say, “We hope to finally get all this behind us with the buyout.”
In a conversation with Willow River Mayor Vicki Whitehouse on June 13, Whitehouse said they were told that 5-6 properties were being considered in the buyout. She added, “I’m really disappointed (in the process) and truly feel all our residents have been let down.” Whitehouse went on to say, “Many folks put a lot of money into repair and they (FEMA) really waited too long to let people know there would be a buyout before they invested that money in their homes. It was really disheartening.”
She stated, “It was really hard to watch the residents (of Willow River) suffer in that emergency.” When asked about the Willow River dam, Whitehouse said, “It was an act of God the water pressure on both sides of the dam rose simultaneously. I had it inspected immediately and there was no damage to the dam itself.” Willow River also sits in limbo waiting for the funds to arrive from FEMA. Whitehouse said she was not pleased with FEMA.
The new mayor of Rutledge, Richard Holm, who took over office in January, said the current council passed a new flood building ordinance. The original one passed in October limited building options for residents on the flood fringe. The new ordinance focuses on allowing more choices such as the option to build structures up high enough to allow flood waters to flow below the structure. Holm said he experienced some of the flooding on his own property. Holm also said they were using the FEMA appropriated funds to repair Starlight Road, Long Lake Road, plus Bald Eagle Avenue and Lane. Rutledge residents are also waiting on the buyout funding.
A year later many flood victims are sitting in irreparable homes waiting for the buyout while others have put a lot of out-of-pocket cash into repairs. There were some emergency funds to help get some homes livable through the winter, but victims are all still waiting on the possible buyout funds. As the one-year anniversary of the flood approaches, Ockwig said, “I fear it happening again.”