LINCOLN — Even before 2011 brought a deluge of disaster to the nation, the federal government owed a staggering backlog of recovery payments to Iowa and Nebraska that dates back several years.
Officials insist the recent decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to freeze its Disaster Relief Fund won't delay infrastructure repair payments promised before this year's record-setting pace of destruction.
But the term "delay" must be put into the context of a federal system that has yet to fully reimburse Nebraska and Iowa for disasters dating to 2007.
The tally of unpaid FEMA reimbursements stands at $1.2 billion in Iowa and $40 million in Nebraska, according to state officials. Among the disasters that remain on FEMA's books are Nebraska's 2007 New Year's Day ice storm and the Iowa floods of 2008, which devastated Cedar Rapids and other communities.
"It's really no different than it was before because we never know when the money is going to come," said Faythe Peterson, the emergency management director for Madison, Antelope and Pierce Counties in northeast Nebraska. Communities in her region are waiting for several hundred thousand dollars in assistance for the Elkhorn River flood of 2010.
The slow pace of repayment might be more of a problem in Nebraska and Iowa, among the most disaster-prone states over the past five years.
A World-Herald analysis found that Nebraska's 16 presidential disaster declarations since 2007 tied it for second most with Missouri. Iowa's 14 disaster declarations since 2007 placed it fourth, in a ranking led by Oklahoma and its 23 disasters since then.
The president declares a major disaster when the extent of damage to homes and public infrastructure overwhelms the resources of a state or local government. Qualified disaster victims, government agencies and some nonprofit organizations can receive federal funds to pay up to 75 percent of recovery costs.
FEMA announced last week it would freeze the roughly $800 million in the Disaster Relief Fund in the wake of Hurricane Irene.
The decision came in the midst of a remarkable year for blizzards, hail, ice, straight-line winds, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes — a year in which the president has made 77 declarations through early September. Last year's 81 disaster declarations now seems a record on the verge of being broken.
Emergency management officials are quick to point out that the freeze won't slow payments to people whose homes have been damaged in a disaster. Nor will it affect municipalities or agencies that incurred emergency costs from battling a disaster — sandbagging, for example — or cleaning up debris in the aftermath of one.
The freeze affects a third category of federal assistance called "permanent work," which involves replacement or repair of major public property such as buildings, roads, bridges, power lines, parks, dams and levees.
Only permanent work requests filed after the Sept. 5 freeze announcement face delay, until Congress infuses the fund with more money, said Rachel Racusen, FEMA's director of public affairs.
"To be clear, funding will not be eliminated for any of these projects, but merely put on hold until additional appropriations are made available," she wrote in a recent blog posting.
A slower pace of cutting checks doesn't necessarily hold up recovery work. Public agencies typically complete the repairs and then seek reimbursement for qualified expenses.
Many mistakenly expect that the freeze will cause recovery money to be redirected from one disaster to another. Rather, the freeze will delay some long-term repair reimbursements to preserve the fund's ability to pay for immediate disaster needs, Racusen said.
Still, depending upon how long the freeze lasts, it could slow down repair payments for roads and bridges damaged by the Missouri River flooding. And that's significant for Nebraskans and Iowans weary from months of flooded roads and barricaded bridges in the Missouri River corridor.
"The longer it's frozen, the bigger the impact it's going to have," said John Benson, legislative liaison for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Senate leaders have said they hope to vote as soon as next week on approving additional funds, but a push by some senators to tie any extra spending to offsetting budget cuts elsewhere might bog down the issue.
Disasters already have had a substantial impact in the Midlands.
The federal government is obligated to pay $1.9 billion to Iowa for the 14 disasters since 2007. Most of that total — $1.5 billion — is in response to the 2008 flooding in Cedar Rapids and other communities. So far, FEMA has made $700 million in payments on those disasters.
The gap between obligated and paid money is smaller on the 17 open disasters in Nebraska. A total of $241 million has been obligated and $201 million of it has been paid, said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Even without freezes to the Disaster Relief Fund, reimbursements for large permanent work projects aren't intended to be instantaneous. Funding requests below $63,000 typically are paid quickly. Larger requests get a review from the regional office in Kansas City, and those that exceed the $1 million threshold go to Washington, D.C., Berndt said.
That's why another freeze doesn't faze him.
"Most of this is a bookkeeping game," he said. "All FEMA is doing is making sure they have adequate funding on hand to take care of immediate disaster needs."
With a network of power lines vulnerable to high winds, ice and tornadoes, the Nebraska Public Power District is a regular applicant for FEMA disaster assistance. NPPD currently is waiting for nearly $10.4 million in reimbursements for 2010 storm damage.
The public utility usually waits six to nine months for permanent work reimbursements, NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said. The utility faces millions of dollars in flood-related expenses protecting Cooper Nuclear Station and perhaps another $3 million more to fix a 345-kilovolt power line damaged by a tornado this summer.
"We understand it doesn't happen fast," he said. "We understand, too, there's a lot of issues happening now on the East Coast."
All the talk of delays and reviews and waiting for Congress to bolster the relief fund sends a jolt of anxiety through Leo Ettleman, a Percival, Iowa, farmer who co-founded a grassroots group of citizens in Missouri River states called Responsible River Management.
Group representatives have met with their congressional delegations in Iowa and Nebraska to call for an extraordinary recovery effort. Members of Congress, along with FEMA leaders, need to understand that closed roads and bridges are sucking the economic life out of river communities, Ettleman said.
"These projects need to be put on the fast track," he added. "They just cannot be bogged down in the red tape of the normal process."
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