After the flood: Will Zumbro Falls survive?by Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Zumbro Falls, Minn. — One week after Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an $80 million disaster relief bill to help repair damages from the September floods, residents of Zumbro Falls may soon learn if their town will survive.
Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and city officials are going door to door to assess the amount of flood damage to each home.
The reviews are important because state assistance will only help local government officials rebuild roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. There wasn't enough overall damage to meet a threshold that provides money for individual homeowners.
In Zumbro Falls, the question running through everyone's mind after last month's record rainfall and floods is whether the town will survive.
Standing outside City Hall, Mayor Alan VanDeWalker said many residents still don't know if they'll be able to rebuild their homes. About 60 to 65 percent of the town's residents had no flood insurance -- and many of the worst-hit homes might have to be rebuilt completely to meet flood codes.
Homes that sustained more than 50 percent damage will have to be brought up to flood code. For many, that means rebuilding from the ground up.
"Even without assistance, they still don't have answers as to what they can do with their residences," VanDeWalker said. "Whether they can rebuild them, whether they can raise them, or what happens. They're still waiting for those answers a month later."
Some of those answers may come this week from FEMA officials who are in Zumbro Falls.
Despite the uncertainty, there are some signs of recovery around town. City Hall has moved to a temporary trailer on Main Street, and crews are fixing the inside of the fire department. Volunteers have been working around the clock to rebuild the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post so the community can have a place to meet.
Then there's the tiny United Methodist Church. Damage to the building was so extensive that church members are holding Sunday services in nearby Mazeppa. During the winter, the congregation will meet at City Hall.
Congregants say spending tens of thousands of dollars to repair the century-old church may be more than they can handle right now.
"It's just too early to tell what we're going to get for funds," said Joyce Greer, 57, who lost her own home and is applying for loans. "You don't have the help from FEMA, so you don't have the biggest percentage of the help."
Like many of her neighbors, Greer was disappointed and upset that the federal government denied cash grants to individual homeowners. She applied for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration, but said it might be easier for her and her husband to rebuild on their family farm just outside the town limits.
"The decision may be made for us," Greer said. "We're hearing that we'll probably be offered a buyout. Our house received more than 50 percent damage so we may not be allowed to rebuild there."
In all, an estimated 600 homes were damaged across southern Minnesota.
State Homeland Security and Emergency Management director Kris Eide said federal individual assistance was likely denied for the September floods in Minnesota because the number of homes damaged was not as concentrated as in past natural disasters.
"A lot of people think their choices were limited because FEMA didn't come in, and that's not really true," Eide said. "It's certainly a help, but they also have to know that there are voluntary agencies that can help them, too."
Agencies that responded to Zumbro Falls include the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the United Way.
But VanDeWalker said the impact of the flooding has already been severe. The mayor said losing residents is his biggest concern. He hasn't done the exact math yet, but said he'll need most of his homeowners to rebuild in order for the city to pay its bills.
They include $1.4 million in sewer bonds used to pay for a new water and sewer system three years ago.
"We need to get as many residents back," VanDeWalker said. "We're still just in the beginnings of that -- still trying to build up reserves to keep ahead on that. And now we lose 50-some users. So that's going to be tough."
VanDeWalker said he won't blame residents and businesses if they decide to leave the flood zone. But having so many people do it at once may leave his town's downtown area changed forever.
- Morning Edition, 10/26/2010, 6:40 a.m.