COUNCIL BLUFFS — "Frustrating" and "disappointing" were words used frequently by Iowa officials Friday after they learned the federal government had denied a request for individual assistance for residents affected by flooding.
Gov. Terry Branstad said he was notified late Thursday by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate that Iowa's request had been denied. The state had asked for activation of the federal Individual Assistance Program for Fremont, Harrison, Monona, Pottawattamie and Woodbury Counties.
"Obviously I am disappointed for the citizens in the impacted counties that my request was denied," Branstad said in a statement. "However, I intend to appeal this issue with FEMA based on the simple facts that the flood is still occurring and, as the waters slowly recede, new damages will be revealed which will have further impacts to Iowans already fighting through this unprecedented flooding event."
Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan expressed sympathy for residents along the Missouri River who might be "up the river without a paddle" if they don't receive federal help to rebuild their lives.
"People we feel sorry for are the people who have damage, who had water in their basements and who may have had to move out," he said. "Those people need assistance. There's a human side of this."
The Individual Assistance Program is made available to homeowners, renters and businesses and can include grants and low-interest loans to help pay for temporary housing, home repairs and other disaster-related expenses not covered by insurance or other aid programs.
Hanafan supports Branstad's planned appeal and said he and other Council Bluffs officials may meet with the governor to provide whatever useful information they might have.
Hanafan noted, however, that city officials have kept FEMA informed of the negative impact of high water levels all summer long. "They've got an understanding of it," the mayor said.
Rep. Steve King, who represents the affected area, also supports Branstad's appeal and vowed to work with the governor on the matter.
King said much of the residential damage can be seen only by boat, "and it is unaccounted for in the aerial survey data FEMA used to make their decision. An appeal will allow FEMA to gain a better understanding of the scale of the damage Iowans are sustaining, and it will give the agency the opportunity to quickly reverse a disappointing decision."
In a letter to FEMA, Iowa Rep. Tom Latham, who is a member of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, urged the agency to work with state officials in their appeal.
"I share the governor's frustration and disappointment at this decision as the level of damage from this flooding, and the havoc wreaked in the lives of citizens in Western Iowa, is self-evident," Latham wrote.
Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber, who also is the county's public information officer, said the decision wasn't unexpected, after South Dakota was denied assistance more than a week ago. But Wilber said South Dakota suffered less damage than western Iowa.
Wilber said the frustrating thing is that the flooding occurred because of a federal government decision and what he called political choices on what to do with the unprecedented water upstream. He said the decisions, including when to close the dam gates to help Louisiana this spring and when to open them to help South Dakota, have affected Iowa residents.
"Look at how long the event has gone on; we are at the mercy of the federal government now," he said. "This is not a hurricane blowing in. This is a federally managed disaster.
"I don't want to throw the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers under the bus, but there is no question the choices the federal government made through the corps to balance a variety of interests led to this three-month fight."
Thanks to heroic efforts from public works employees, road crews, the Iowa National Guard and volunteers, Wilber said, more people have been saved from catastrophe.
"We're being punished for our success," he said.
Don Gross, public information officer for Council Bluffs, said he was saddened and disheartened for the citizens by the government's decision.
"The mayor, his staff and the county are working to discuss what to do with the governor's office and congressional staffs to see that Council Bluffs gets the deserved assistance," he said.
Nebraska has not received a response concerning its application for federal individual assistance, said Jodie Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Individual assistance was requested in mid-July for Boyd, Buffalo, Burt, Cass, Dakota, Dixon, Douglas, Knox, Polk, Sarpy and Washington Counties.
World-Herald staff writer Sam Womack contributed to this report.