[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: A wrap-up of last year's flooding (8/30/2010)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Start Date: 8/30/2010 All Day
End Date: 8/30/2010

Whenever there's big news, I always want to know what happens later, after the television cameras are long gone and the story disappears from the headlines. Coverage of the Aug. 4 flooding in Southern Indiana receded and then dried up completely after several months.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

According to the National Weather Service, up to 6 inches of rain fell between 7 and 10 a.m., with 5 inches falling in the middle 90 minutes of that span. At one point, it was raining at a rate of 8.8 inches per hour. The storm washed away the previous record, set in 1879, for highest rainfall in a single day.

Within days, Jefferson County, Ky., received an official disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and residents enjoyed a flood of money. Weeks later, Indiana was still trying to make its case to the feds. It was the same storm on both sides of the Ohio River, but the treatment was very different.

In fact, it was as uneven as the flooding itself. Some homes and businesses were devastated, while many others were unaffected. As a result, Southern Indiana had plenty of people who experienced a disaster, but not enough to reach the threshold for FEMA assistance.

In response, U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, D-9th District, introduced legislation that would make it possible for areas such as Southern Indiana to piggyback onto a FEMA disaster declaration in a bordering state. The bill was assigned to committee and has not received a hearing.

Soon after the flooding, an unmet needs committee formed and started meeting at the Salvation Army in New Albany. Emergency management directors, other local government officials and representatives of relief organizations came together to try to figure out how to help in the absence of FEMA assistance. I attended the meetings and participated in the committee.

In November, after FEMA's final denial of Indiana's request for assistance, we turned to the two remaining sources of government aid.

The U.S. Small Business Administration offered low-interest loans to businesses and households. It was confusing. One federal agency (SBA) was able to help after another (FEMA) wasn't. And despite its all-business name, SBA was also offering help to homeowners and renters.

Households that didn't qualify for an SBA loan could apply for a grant of up to $5,000 from Indiana's State Disaster Relief Fund to replace essential items.

At the time, I was concerned that renters were, in some cases, the hardest hit, yet the least likely to know about or apply for possible assistance. A man who attended a December aid meeting I organized was a good example.

The water rose higher than the 8-foot ceiling of his Jeffersonville apartment. He lost everything except for a few items of clothing and the flag from his father's casket. I called him last week to find out how he was doing.

He didn't qualify for an SBA loan, but he did receive the maximum $5,000 grant from the state, and that has allowed him to replace much of what he lost. The money finally came at the beginning of February - six months after the flood. It was a long time to wait, and he still doesn't understand the lack of FEMA help. At the time of the flood, he was working as a pipefitter in Kentucky - he retired in January - and saw co-workers receive checks for thousands of dollars for relatively minor losses.

"They got all this assistance, and Indiana didn't get [expletive]. I'm confused," he said, echoing the sentiments of many.

The State Disaster Relief Fund was created in 2006. There's currently about $1.2 million in the fund. The money comes from a 5 percent state tax on the sale of fireworks. The first $2 million of annual revenue from the tax is designated for firefighter training. After that, any additional revenue raised by the tax in a year goes into the relief fund, which is administered by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Prior to the Aug. 4 flooding, the fund had been used only once, when the small northern Indiana city of Nappanee received $200,000 after being devastated by a tornado in 2007. The fund had not been used to provide direct financial assistance to individual households.

IDHS reports to Gov. Mitch Daniels. I appreciate their responsiveness and willingness to use the fund to help the neediest flood victims. Starting in January, the fund provided $243,773 to 51 households in Southern Indiana. A dozen of the recipients were renters and the rest homeowners. Thirty-one were in Clark County, 17 in Floyd County and three in Jefferson County.

Most of the checks went out in January and February, with a handful in March and April and one last week. IDHS was careful to make sure the money only went to those who qualified. Forty-one of the 51 payments were for the full $5,000. The smallest was $2,075; the rest were at least $3,000.

Some households and businesses qualified for SBA loans. In Clark County, SBA made three business loans totaling $221,200 and 12 individual loans totaling $422,700 (the average loan was $35,225). There were no business loans in Floyd County, but there were 11 individual loans totaling $518,700 (average was $47,155). In the two counties combined, SBA made a total of 26 loans totaling almost $1.2 million.

The Aug. 4 flooding is behind us. Now our focus should be on preventing flooding. With cooperation and planning, we can minimize the need for future assistance.