116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
About half the roughly $100 million in aid to local governments sought by Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Linn County in the aftermath of the 2020 derecho has been received so far from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The majority of the big-ticket items are for the costs of debris removal and clean up from Aug. 10, 2020, storm.
Some local communities have reached out to members of Congress or consultants for help navigating the FEMA reimbursement process as the agency responds to a much higher level of declared disasters across the nation besides the derecho.
In the last two years, FEMA has responded to over 150 declared disasters across the country. In comparison, the average of annual disasters in the 1960s was 18. The agency has seen high turnover despite adding thousands of workers over the last five years.
Linn County Risk Manager Steve Estenson and Finance Director Dawn Jindrich both said they’ve been ‘frustrated’ with the process.
The county received $11 million in reimbursement for derecho debris cleanup last month, and another $16.8 million has been obligated to be paid. FEMA said 11 county projects at $3.8 million remain to be obligated.
“I’m very surprised about the delays,” Jindrich said. “I don’t know if it’s because FEMA is spread too thin with other disasters in other parts of the country, but to be waiting two years with some of these things, I cannot believe it. It’s a lot to ask of any government entity to be out $20 million for two years. We were told at one time we would be pretty much fully reimbursed in January 2021.”
“My frustration is not having FEMA staff on site to work with us on this,” Estenson added. “They’re trying to do everything remotely with their staff. And when you’re trying to identify and document your damages to them, it’s hard to do that with just pictures and, for example, the folks at FEMA are using Google Earth to measure feet for a damaged gutter while I have an architect here on the ground doing it and there are discrepancies.”
To request aid from FEMA, local governments must file for assistance within 30 days of the area being declared a disaster area. FEMA goes through the project lists and “obligates” funding to the state. Local jurisdictions such as cities and counties are considered sub-applicants under the state, so when projects are approved for reimbursement, FEMA obligates funding to the state, which then distributes the funds locally.
In Cedar Rapids, the city has filed 18 projects with FEMA including for debris removal, building damages and waterway work, according to FEMA External Affairs Director Kristiana Sanford. Fifteen of those have been obligated.
Cedar Rapids officials estimate derecho recovery will total about $85 million, City Finance Director Casey Drew said. The city expects $60 to $65 million in reimbursement for FEMA-eligible costs.
Sanford said one of the three remaining city projects was obligated Tuesday at $690,000 and a $24.5 million debris removal project will be obligated by the end of September.
A bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in March granted a minimum 90 percent federal cost share for any emergency or major disaster declaration occurring between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021 — covering the 2020 derecho. FEMA typically takes on 75 percent of the eligible costs.
“The city is appreciative FEMA changed their funding,” Drew said. “This will reduce the amount the city will have to fund by approximately $9 million.”
Drew said working with FEMA over the last two years has been “an expected process.” Drew was also the city’s finance director during the historic 2008 floods.
“It’s what we expected and the pace seems to be on par with what we experienced in the past as well,” he said. “But each disaster is different. The ‘08 flood was massive and we had over 300 project worksheets and the cost was over $1 billion to the city. They’re on way different scales.”
In the metro area’s northern suburbs of Marion, Hiawatha and Robins, each community has been working with FEMA as well, and the city of Hiawatha has been made whole as of this summer.
Hiawatha had a total of seven projects with FEMA, mostly debris cleanup at a total cost of $820,000. City Manager Kim Downs said working with FEMA had challenges.
“I ended up reaching out to (Republican U.S. Rep.) Ashley Hinson and sharing our frustrations there and we ended up having a phone call with FEMA and Iowa Homeland Security to figure things out, and that really helped move the process along,” Downs said.
Marion has had $17 million in projects obligated and has received about $14.6 million so far. City Assistant Finance Director Brian McKenzie said the biggest reimbursement the city still is waiting on is about another $14 million for waterway cleanup, which was completed in the winter and spring following the derecho.
Sanford said $9.8 million of that should obligate this month.
City Manager Ryan Waller said the process was made easier with the city contracting with firm Tidal Basin to help navigate the FEMA process. The city contracted with the firm for $350,000.
“That partnership has made the process much smoother and thanks to our federal delegation members, their offices have been tremendously supportive in assisting us with shepherding this through,” Waller said.
Additionally, the city took out a line of credit with Wells Fargo up to $20 million. But the city has so far drawn on only $3 million.
In Robins, the city has received about $820,000 of a total $1.8 million it expects from FEMA.
“They’re pretty easy to work with,” Robins Mayor Chuck Hinz said. “You just have to dot the ‘Is’ and cross the ‘Ts,’ but it does take some time.”
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