September 12, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 37

Post-flood frustrations mount

Left in flood relief limbo, challenges test victims' resiliency

Former Willow River Mayor Troy Janke recalled how he still didn’t grasp the seriousness of last year’s flood in the earliest stages of the disaster. Janke and his wife, Lainie, shared their tale of the June 2012 flood Saturday at a program for flood victims hosted by Pine County.

Northern Pine County residents who were affected by the June 2012 flood attend an outreach program at Willow River School Saturday to learn of services and resources available to help them with disaster recovery. The program included a pig roast and ice cream social, as well as a panel of speakers offering personal flood stories and information on services ranging from applying for a loan to mental health services for children and adults.

“That feeling of not being in control was very hard for me,” said Janke.

Janke’s comments could well apply to those involved in the recovery process who did not realize they would still be dealing with upheaval more than a year later.

One of the event’s organizers, Jaci Orr, adult services supervisor of Pine County Health and Human Services, said there is “incredible resilience in this community.” The event, which included a free pig roast and ice cream social along with an array of resources and forum, was an attempt to support flood victims and reach out to those who have yet to receive any assistance.

The panelists also celebrated the community’s resiliency, for helping each other through the hardship, and offered information for continuing recovery — information regarding loans and mental health support for children and adults.

“Many have not come forward,” says Orr.

Northern Pine County residents affected by the flood initially were served meals provided by the Salvation Army, given cleanup supplies and water, and provided dumpsters for free debris removal. Family members, neighbors and church members provided manpower for cleanup. Progress was visible amid the loss.

Perhaps more taxing on nerves, relationships and finances has been the figuring out what to do after the flood.

“Just getting the answers on that stuff is really tough,” said Pat Adams. She and Bill Booth live on the Kettle River near Rutledge and have been repairing their walkout basement, which took on 2 ½ feet of water during the flood.

First came the assessments. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted inspections of damaged property to determine whether or not individuals would receive federal aid. Although the region was declared a federal disaster, the value of loss in the area was too low and the state’s individual assistance application was denied. Cal Greening, senior program professional for Minnesota Housing, in a phone call Monday explained, “FEMA is designed for big disasters such as hurricanes.”

Meanwhile, Pine County Assessor Kelly Schroeder assessed properties to determine their loss in value to provide property tax relief for those owners. Of the 113 flood-damaged properties Schroeder assessed, 68 sustained significant or major damage, Schroeder said in a phone interview Monday.

According to Dana Rauschnot of Lakes & Pines Community Action Council, homeowners of flood-damaged properties were directed to first submit claims to insurance when possible. Second, they had to apply for loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA), the national agency that provides the most disaster relief. Next, homeowners could seek assistance from the state’s Quick Start Disaster Recovery program, administered locally through Lakes & Pines.

Why must victims jump through all those hoops? “Duplication of benefits is not allowed to occur,” said Greening. “It’s against the law.”

Of Quick Start, Megan Ryan, also of Minnesota Housing, said, “It is a resource of last resort.” The Quick Start program provides loans for unmet victims’ needs. The no-interest loans are forgivable after 10 years if the homeowner keeps the home for that period. If the home is sold prior to that, the loan requires repayment.

To date, only nine Quick Start loans for a total of $275,966.98 have been disbursed in Pine County, according to figures released by Minnesota Housing, despite Schroeder’s findings of 68 households with major damage.

The program has had its share of challenges, according to Greening. Over time the state has increased the loan amounts, extended deadlines and allowed multiple loans in instances where a contractor finds an unforeseen issue that needs correction.

“We’ve experienced a shortage of contractors to do the work,” Greening added.

Lezlie Sauter of Lakes & Pines said part of the difficulty reaching people may be due to how spread out people are in general in a rural area, making the initial recovery centers not as effective as they might be in an urban location. And not everyone has Internet.

Or, maybe the resiliency factor has a downside. “People don’t want to ask for help,” said Greening. When they offered help, Greening said, victims would say, “I’m OK, but my neighbor across the street could use some help.”

Not everyone was pleased, however, with the forum. “The forum was kind of a joke,” said Don Phaller.

“It would have been nice to hear about stuff earlier,” said his wife Dolly. Their home on Willow Street was flooded to “about 4 inches high above the kitchen counters.” The Phallers lost just about everything.

They were informed their home wasn’t in the flood plain the year prior and couldn’t get flood insurance then. So, the Phallers began fixing their home shortly after the flood, socking $30,000 in Quick Start funds into repairs (they didn’t qualify for an SBA loan) plus an additional $12,000 for a berm surrounding the house to protect it from future floods.

They were given the impression at the time that there was no buyout option available, and winter was coming. They stayed in a trailer on the property, lent to them by a relative, while they made repairs.

County officials mentioned a buyout option beginning in October 2012, according to Schroeder.

Greening said, “It’s the responsibility of the local governments to set up buyouts.”

According to a July 6, 2012, press release from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the buyout appears to have been an option all along, couched in unfamiliar terms as a “hazard mitigation grant program” and described in the release as “Assistance to state and local government and certain private nonprofit organizations for actions taken to prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property from natural hazards. All counties in the state of Minnesota are eligible to apply for assistance under this program.”

According to Schroeder, 39 households have chosen to have their properties purchased by local government at pre-flood prices and turned into public green space, never to be built upon again.

Six homeowners took buyouts through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Schroeder said these properties — one in Willow River, one in Rutledge and four in the Cathedral Pines area of Sturgeon Lake — have been purchased and are slated for demolition this week.

Wheels were set in motion for the remaining buyouts through the federal government.

“They told us at first anything you put in you can take out,” said Don Phaller of the repairs being made to the homes eligible for a buyout. If they take the buyout they cannot remove the updates from the home prior to demolition, plus they will have to repay the $30,000 loan for purchasing those replacement items such as a furnace and cabinets.

“Everything was a little late,” said Dolly. They both lament they would not have repaired their home if they had known the buyout was an option.

The Phallers are not the only ones who will lose the money spent on repairs. Duane Lund, born and raised in Duquette and now living in the Twin Cities, has a vacation home on the Kettle River outside of Rutledge. His new log home on a slab had 33 inches of water come in and had no flood insurance. Lund’s friend Ven Cluett of Sturgeon Lake said of the recovery process, “Everything we do is a roadblock.”

Of Cluett, Lund said, “She’s been a big help.” Lund brought in Service Master to take care of the mold, at a cost of more than $7,000. All the money spent in repairs he has made, $30,000 worth, will be lost when he takes the buyout. He has left things half-finished and is waiting for the buyout to proceed.

This spring, homeowners were notified the buyouts would take place in May, and they would have two weeks to move.

“We went and bought a place,” said Don.

They weren’t the only ones. Don’s sister, Ruth Pfaller, and her husband, John Wolforth, have made things work in their place on the Kettle River south of Sturgeon Lake with particle board floors and using their lawn furniture. They are in the process of moving to their new home in Barnum.

This summer the buyouts were put on hold.

Pine County’s updated flood mitigation plan, submitted to Homeland Security and Emergency Management the beginning of May, was rejected, and the old one expired May 27. A mitigation plan is a requirement for the federal buyout, so those buyouts were halted. According to Denise Baran of the Pine County Sheriff’s Office, a rewritten plan was submitted weeks ago. The plan is done at the state level and is on to the FEMA portion for approval.

“No one can imagine how much stress it is on your life and your relationships,” said Don Phaller of the flood and the recovery effort.

And questions remain.

“Do we heat the house?” he asked. Winter is coming again and they cannot afford to heat both homes now that they pay two mortgages. The buyout is like a regular home purchase and those seeking that option must keep their credit clean in order to meet the closing requirements.

The couple now resides in Duquette in a much smaller home. Dolly’s daughter is living in the repaired home in Willow River, while her son’s belongings are being stored in the trailer. Dolly worries about no longer having room to offer their home as a haven should their adult children need a place to stay.

“If all works out how it should,” Schroeder said, the remaining 33 homeowners can begin the closing process on their homes around November 1. Schroeder estimates that once the plan receives final approval and she gets the final signatures, the county will be able to conduct approximately three buyouts per week. The process is like that of a typical closing on a mortgage so she predicts homeowners will have 30 days notice or more to move.

Schroeder, who has been trying to push the feds to relent on the stipulation requiring buyout participants to leave all improvements in the homes, has seen some ground given. Items could be donated to Habitat for Humanity rather than be demolished with the structure. However, that is not what strapped homeowners want to hear.

Other assistance has been available for flood victims through Lutheran Social Services (LSS), flood relief funds in various communities, and also through Pine County. The need was great enough that LSS opened an office in Moose Lake last year. That office closed at the end of August due to decreasing needs.

Pine County allocated $30,000 for flood victim assistance in 2012, however, only $5,102 was spent by July 26, 2012. An additional $2,264 was expended through existing programs for emergency general assistance, according to Pine County Administrator David Minke’s memo to the county commissioners last July.

Since then, according to Minke, “No more money was spent and that appropriation ended on December 31, 2012 (end of the fiscal year).”

Resilient as they may be, many flood victims are still dealing with inordinate amounts of stress.

“The big thing is the wait,” said Don.

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