July 2019 flooding west of Kearney

Mark Witt of the Nebraska Department of Transportation erects a barricade at U.S. Highway 30 and Dovehill Road west of Kearney in July. Officials closed Highway 30 from Kearney to Elm Creek because water was running over the highway at multiple places.

It was bad enough when flooding in March blew out the approaches to the bridge over the Pine Creek in north-central Nebraska’s Rock County.

Extreme rains in September then generated even worse flooding, and the bridge itself was washed away.

Officials in Rock County, along with 15 other Nebraska counties, had been hoping for federal disaster aid after Gov. Pete Ricketts asked President Donald Trump to issue the second federal disaster declaration of the year for the state. The first federal disaster declaration was triggered by the March flooding, Nebraska’s costliest disaster on record.

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This week, officials in those 16 counties learned their hopes were in vain. The federal government has turned down, for a second time, the state’s request for federal aid for damage caused by late summer storms.

“I don’t know what the county is going to do,” said Doug Fox, emergency management director for Region 24 in Nebraska, which includes Rock County. “I’m a little overwhelmed that we didn’t get the disaster declaration.”

The Pine Creek bridge is especially important to residents in the Bassett area.

Fox said that the September floods were more costly and destructive in his area than the March flooding.

For the second request for a federal disaster declaration, the state was seeking federal aid to help with $3 million in damages for the period of July 15 to Sept. 17.

While $3 million doesn’t sound like a lot of money, it’s a big deal for rural counties, Fox said. Many of the same counties were hit by the March flooding, and their budgets were strained by problems the rest of the summer as rain and storms continued.

Still, the amount of damage didn’t reach the threshold required to merit federal aid, according to a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We (FEMA) reaffirm our original findings that the impact from this event is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration,” Kristiana Sanford said. The decision was made by FEMA’s acting administrator, Pete Gaynor.

Federal aid is intended to help with those disasters that outstrip a state’s ability to cope on its own.

The counties still may have some hope of assistance, said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Because Ricketts had declared a state of emergency as a result of those late summer storms, the state may be able to activate its emergency funds. Counties may qualify to be reimbursed for up to 50 % of eligible expenses, Tuma said.

Ricketts said Friday he was looking into the issue.

“While we wish the federal government was able to fulfill our request, there is a process in place to assist counties that meet a certain threshold when FEMA denies a request,” he said. “We are reviewing the assistance that can be provided to counties through that process.”

If state aid is forthcoming, it will be helpful, but not as significant as federal aid. Under federal disaster aid, the federal government covers 75 % of the cost, while the state and local governments cover 12.5 % apiece.

The affected counties are: Adams, Brown, Cherry, Clay, Custer, Dawson, Grant, Hall, Hamilton, Hayes, Howard, Logan, Loup, Rock, Thayer, Valley.

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Phone: 402-444-1102.

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