by CHRIS ROGERS
Construction crews shored up most of the washed out roads and bridges damaged after massive rains flooded much of Buffalo and Trempealeau counties earlier this month. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in Buffalo, Treampealeau, and Eau Claire counties last week and asked the federal government to help pay for the $1.8 million in damage to federal-aid highways in the three counties. However, the counties are still adding up the damage and seeking more damage reports from property owners. How much state disaster relief will be available is still to be determined, and some townships are struggling to pay for repairs.
“They’re up in the air right now, so I really don’t know,” Gilmanton Town Board Chair Marvin Meier said of disaster assistance for his township. “We’ve been told we can expect 75 percent state assistance, but we have to repair our roads first … and we have to pay the bill up front.”
The Town of Gilmanton completed temporary repairs to four flood-damaged roads. Some washed-out paved roads were replaced with gravel, for instance. Three more roads are still closed to traffic.
“They’re not permanent repairs, but they’re passable,” explained Meier. “Permanent repairs — I don’t know how long that will take, maybe years.” The cost of flood repairs dwarf the spending township governments such as the Town of Gilmanton normally take on, and the way state and federal disaster assistance works, local governments must first pay for repairs themselves and then get reimbursement for the majority of the costs. Meier said the his township does not have enough money on hand right now to pay for more substantial repairs. On one dead end road that is the only way in and out for its residents, the township did enough work so residents could get by, but full repairs may cost around $100,000. “I could name any one of these roads [that would] would eat up our budget,” Meier said. “Our only avenue I see is borrowing the money, setting up loans,” he added. The Town Board has not yet discussed whether to do that, and if it decides to take out loans, that process will take time, too. “Some roads we may never reopen because the costs are just too prohibitive,” Meier said, speaking his personal opinion. “People want things settled and cleaned up quickly, but some of these things can’t be cleaned up quickly,” he continued.
The county governments in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties are still trying to tally up the flood damage to roads, homes, crops, farm equipment, and conservation structures. Fifteen homeowners have applied for federal assistance after suffering damage to more than half of their home, reported Buffalo County Administrator Sonya Hansen. Like the Town of Gilmanton, Buffalo County completed temporary repairs to several bridges and roads that were washed out in the flood. Only one bridge is still out. There are various pots of state and federal disaster assistance money for home, farm, and public infrastructure damage, but the county needs property owners to report damage by calling 2-1-1 on a landline telephone or 1-800-362-8255 on a cell phone. If the total damage suffered by the county is large enough, the county may qualify for more federal and state disaster funds.
Hansen’s staff are currently working on applying for a state grant to help low- to -moderate-income families who suffered flood damage. “We’re excited to help homeowners because most of them did not have flood insurance and it is a total loss to them,” Hansen said.
It is a not sure thing that the county will get all those disaster relief funds, Hansen said, but the governor’s state of emergency declaration last Monday makes it more likely.
"I'm sure most of this damage will be covered by the Wisconsin Disaster Fund," said Wisconsin Emergency Management spokesman Tod Pritchard. The Wisconsin Disaster Fund (WDF) covers 70 percent of local governments' disaster recovery costs. Buffalo and Trempealeau counties have not submitted any bills for reimbursement yet, Pritchard said, but when they do, the state agency will review whether the WDF is the right funding source — or if federal assistance is available instead — and likely fund many repairs in both counties.
Hansen said there is one important project that does not seem to be eligible for any state of federal funding: cleaning out Elk Creek. The creek is clogged with debris carried by the flood, and if the county suffers another big rainfall, those clogs could make flooding worse, Hansen explained. “It’s probably going to wind up being a town and county expense … so we’re struggling to find a resource to clear out that creek,” she stated.
Fortunately, the county did have the financial reserves to afford repairs without taking out loans, though flood repair expenses may force the county to delay routine road repairs planned for this fall, Hansen said.
The area “got clobbered” by the floods, but everyone should be thankful that no one died or was hurt, Meier said. “It’s a challenge, but I think we’ll overcome it. It’ll just take time,” he added.
“We are a small community and we think of each other as family because everyone knows each other, and we’re all doing our best to help each other out,” Hansen said.
More information on disaster assistance for individuals and property owners is available at www.redcross.org, www.disasterassistance.gov, and emergencymanagement.wi.gov/recovery/Individual-Assistance.asp. The American Red Cross of Wisconsin may be reached at 800-236-8680. Buffalo County Emergency Management may be reached at 608-685-6298. Trempealaeu County Emergency Management may be reached at 715-538-2311, extension 215.
Do not drink water from contaminated wells
County officials warned residents not to drink from wells that may have been contaminated by flood waters. Public health departments in both Buffalo and Trempealeau counties are offering free bacteria test kits for wells that may have been contaminated by bacteria. In Buffalo County, call 608-685-4412. In Trempealeau County, call 715-538-2311, extension 220, or visit the public health department at the county government office, 36245 Main Street, Whitehall, Wis.
Report flood damage
County officials urged all property owners who suffered damage in the flood to report the damage by calling 2-1-1 on a landline phone or 1-800-362-8255 on a cell phone.
Clean up kits available
In Buffalo County, free flood clean-up kits are available at the Gilmanton Town Hall, the Lincoln Town Hall, and the Buffalo County Courthouse.