FEMA doesn't cover tree removal costs, so Cedar Rapids turns to volunteers for help

For most homeowners, insurance coverage also isn't available, so county, city trying to find solutions

Volunteer Shane Hatch of Center Point pulls on a cut tree limb along Second Street SW during a Community Storm Relief Ef
Volunteer Shane Hatch of Center Point pulls on a cut tree limb along Second Street SW during a Community Storm Relief Effort location in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. The effort is a clearinghouse where volunteers meet and are given assignments collected from residents in need. Supplies such as water, snacks, flashlights and batteries, diapers and other hygiene supplies are distributed, residents can obtain information on assistance. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Elected officials seeking to help Iowa homeowners in picking up downed trees from their property are looking to volunteers and the not-for-profit sector to step in to help.

Restrictions on federal assistance generally leave homeowners on their own to cover the cost of removing trees such as those knocked down by the Aug. 10 derecho’s hurricane-force winds.

Depending on insurance coverage, affected Iowans may foot the bill for removing downed trees, and restrictions on the Stafford Act, the law governing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, bar federal funding from covering tree removal costs.

“It’s clear that that’s going to be an issue for a lot of people,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said. “My understanding is that it’s very unlikely that we’re going to get FEMA help for tree debris removal on private property.”

Many people don’t have any coverage for tree debris removal, or don’t have enough coverage, Hart said.

He said the city is working with local volunteers to access private property and cut debris down to place debris in the right of way where city crews can pick up the debris.

“We’ll do our best to find these other resources because we clearly have to help people get these dead trees out of their yards so they don’t just sit there and rot and continue to be a fire hazard,” he said.


Angelica Vannatta, senior manager for volunteer engagement with United Way of East Central Iowa, said the organization is helping the community by matching people with volunteers as residents call 2-1-1 or the emergency volunteer center.

The first several weeks are focused on small- and medium-sized debris removal while national teams coordinate to help those with the greatest needs.

Volunteer organizations use United Way’s crisis clean-up database to see the existing need, then deploy their own teams to address it. So far, of the 491 disaster relief calls for Linn County made to United Way from Aug. 10 through Aug. 19, 104 were for debris and post-cleanup calls, she said.

“We’ve had an incredible support of volunteers wanting to help each other these first few weeks,” Vannatta said. “We do expect that the need is going to continue to be there as we move into these next weeks and months to come.”

Seeking resources

Lucinda Parker, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokeswoman, said it is a local responsibility to remove trees and debris, but Linn County has asked for woodchippers and loaders to help with the process.

The agency is working to finalize a contract to make available chipping and grinding services for use by cities and counties in their debris-removal efforts, she said. The expense to municipalities that use the services would be reimbursable by FEMA.

While there currently are no state resources to provide direct assistance to residents with tree removal costs, Parker said the department will “continue to work with the city and county to try to find some possible resources.”

John Mills, an external affairs officer for FEMA Region VII, noted FEMA Individual Assistance aid is not allowed to duplicate insurance coverage.

FEMA individual assistance typically can provide grants to homeowners and renters who have serious damage to their primary residence, he said, but only for needs not covered by insurance, other aid programs or charitable organizations.


“For homeowners, FEMA can provide grants to help restore their primary residence to a habitable condition,” Mills said. “That FEMA program is not designed to repair the house completely — only to restore habitability to a safe, sanitary and functional condition.”

FEMA can make referrals to not-for-profit organizations that may be able to help with needs not covered under the Individual Assistance program, he said.

If a tree has destroyed someone’s house — therefore affecting its habitability — Mills said FEMA may be able to provide some assistance to restore habitability.

If a tree is down in the front yard or a garage or other non-residential structure has been destroyed, the individual generally will not qualify for FEMA Individual Assistance aid, he said.

“FEMA works with everyone on a case-by-case basis,” Mills said, adding people should still reach out if they believe they may be eligible for help. “We want to hear from people about their specific needs.”

Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation say they continue to press for aid on the federal level.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat representing the 2nd District, said he is co-sponsoring the DEBRIS Act, which would make tree and debris removal from private residences or property eligible for federal disaster assistance funding because current law does not allow for federal funding to cover tree removal costs.

“When disasters happen, folks rely on FEMA to step in and cover the unforeseen costs of getting their lives back on track,” Loebsack said in a statement. “Many Iowans will face large bills to have trees removed and we need to stand with them to ensure they get the assistance they need.”


Ben Watson, Republican U.S. Jen. Joni Ernst’s spokesman, said in a statement that Ernst continues to hear from Iowans affected by the derecho on her 99-county tour and is working to provide Iowans with the relief and resources they need.

“Our office has reached out to the (Trump) administration regarding the aid, and will continue working with the governor and the Iowa delegation to ensure Iowans have the resources they need to recover and rebuild,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said he understands properties across the state, and especially in the Cedar Rapids area, sustained significant damage and therefore need help with tree debris removal.

“I know many volunteers are working to help with this effort,” said Grassley, a Republican. “However, I continue to work with FEMA and (Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management) on federal assistance for Iowa, including the tree removal issue on private property.

“Damage assessments continue and FEMA is reviewing the rest of the Individual Assistance paperwork with this additional information.”

A spokesperson for the office of U.S. Rep. Finkenauer said the 1st District Democrat continues to push for federal aid.

“FEMA has shown flexibility in the past on covering tree removal as part of the public or individual assistance it provides following a disaster,” her office said.

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