Roads could be torn up or covered in debris. Bridges, culverts and levees might get washed out. City parks could need repairs.
Facing the potential for spring flooding and a depleted disaster fund, Gov. Tim Walz asked lawmakers on Tuesday to spend $30 million to replenish a state account used to help communities recover from weather-related emergencies that have become increasingly common in Minnesota.
Last year a cold, dry spring helped prevent large-scale flooding disasters. The potential for a wetter spring this year has Walz and local government officials calling for quick legislative action.
“The thing that keeps me up at night now is how wet we were in the fall, how wet we are now with the snowpack,” said Garry Johanson, Norman County emergency management director. “And when it all melts the one thing that is a big unknown is: Are we going to get a really warm spell of 60-degree, 70-degree weather with heavy rains?”
The state’s Disaster Assistance Contingency Account will soon have a deficit, as the $30 million the state allocated last year has been doled out for various needs. Legislators should aim to pass a bill to replace the funds by April 1, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who is sponsoring the measure.
The idea was met with quick support from a powerful Senate Republican. Finance Committee Chairwoman Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said in a statement that she “wholeheartedly” backs adding money to help local governments.
“One thing Minnesotans are really good at is helping out our neighbors; given the challenges we are expected to face this spring, it’s important we are prepared to give counties and communities the support they will need. This is one of my top priorities, and I am glad the governor is making it a priority as well,” Rosen said.
Walz’s state initiative follows efforts by the state’s congressional delegation to boost federal disaster aid. In a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last week, lawmakers raised concerns with the agency’s low estimate of the cost of flooding and severe weather last year. The delegation wrote that the $76 million in storm- and weather-related damage in Minnesota was almost double FEMA’s early estimate.
“[We ask FEMA to] provide additional financial assistance to the state and undertake a full review of the procedures that it relied on in developing its estimate of the damages in Minnesota so that similar situations can be prevented in the future,” they wrote.
FEMA is supposed to reimburse 75% of local governments’ disaster expenses. The state covers the other 25% through the contingency account. The account is also used to help communities when storm damage isn’t extensive enough to qualify for FEMA aid.
“These funds are critical to us, to these cities and towns to get back on their feet,” said Doug Berglund, Washington County emergency management director. Communities in his county are anticipating this year’s needs could be significant.
The contingency account was created in 2014. Legislators also changed the rules for disaster relief that year, eliminating the requirement for a special session to devote money to recovery needs.
“It took us several weeks before the governor would call a special session,” Pelowski said. “You can’t wait weeks — or days — when you have a disaster. We have to get the aid to that area and to those people as quickly as possible.”
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044