Disaster Relief Centers aid 731 flood victimsIt took just four days for 731 individuals and families to filter through the three regional Disaster Recovery Centers that were set up in key areas last weekend.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
It took just four days for 731 individuals and families to filter through the three regional Disaster Recovery Centers that were set up in key areas last weekend.
Temporary centers in Barnum, Willow River and Duluth last Friday through Monday were coordinated by Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) to ensure that flood victims had access to a variety of valuable resources all in one place from various county and state agencies.
For many, the centers proved to be a valuable lifeline in figuring out “What comes next?”
HSEM and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials were slated to be in Carlton County Wednesday and Thursday assessing damage to homes and businesses.
“HSEM is committed to viewing damage along with FEMA and local officials to see if northeastern Minnesota may be eligible for an Individual Assistance Declaration,” stated Julie Anderson, spokesperson for the HSEM’s Department of Public Safety.
Among those on hand to assist flood victims with the recovery process on Monday in Barnum was Cindy Petersen, Extension educator and certified financial counselor. Petersen strongly encouraged impacted residents to consider reading through an online document called the Family Financial Toolkit, developed by the University of Minnesota Extension Service to assist people through recovery following disaster.
“It helps walk people through the things they should consider as far as financial procedures they should follow,” related Petersen.
Petersen said the Family Financial Toolkit is downloadable online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/toughtimes/.
Beyond that, Petersen advised that flood victims start making a list of losses and putting a dollar value to them as soon as possible.
“You’ve really got to rack your brain and think of the little things, not only the big things that you can visually see,” said Petersen. “What about all the Christmas ornaments, the knickknacks, the clothes that were stored downstairs?”
She also reminded folks who visited the Disaster Recovery Centers that the flood losses that aren’t reimbursed by insurance can be written off on federal income tax as a deduction.
Mandy Dols, financial eligibility specialist for Carlton County Human Services, said if people are homeless, they can apply through the county for emergency assistance.
“If they find other housing, a lot of times we can coordinate with Lakes and Pines to arrange to pay for things such as damage deposits so they can get in place of their own,” she said.
She added that if someone misses a stretch of work due to the flooding, they may be eligible for food assistance for a month or so to help them out until they get their reimbursement checks.
Chris Ness, insurance investigator representing the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s consumer response team, was on hand at the center in Barnum Monday to help flood victims understand their rights and act as an advocate with various agencies they’re dealing with.
Ness said he talked with one woman who was fortunate enough to have had $25,000 worth of sewer backup insurance on her house but said she ran into frustration in dealing with her mortgage company. He explained the bank is the loss payee on her homeowner’s insurance.
“Under that type of arrangement, when the insurance company gives you the check made payable to you and the mortgage company,” he explained, “you have to sign it over to the mortgage company and then you are at their mercy and don’t have the money to get started on repairs.”
Ness said he planned to give the woman’s bank a call to see if he could possibly smooth the way for her.
“Sometimes a simple phone call does a lot,” he said. “If the state calls, asks the bank what can be done and explains that the person needs money after having suffered a catastrophic loss, that sometimes helps get the point across.”
Ness said no one ever expects a disaster such as this one to happen, so the average person doesn’t know what to do. He stressed that there are certain things folks need to keep in mind, however, such as declaring uninsured losses on their income tax, and the fact that the Small Business Administration has loan and grant programs for uninsured losses, featuring low interest rates and long terms.
“Sometimes if you have to borrow money to fix your place, that might be a better option,” he said.
Carlton County Commissioner Tom Proulx was also on hand in Barnum on Monday, giving people general information about debris removal and distributing free well testing kits, which he said can save people some $50-$60.
“Basically, I’ve been sitting here and listening to stories,” Proulx related. “People want to tell their stories about where they’re at with the flood cleanup and how much they’ve done. I also want the people in the southern part of the county to know that the Cloquet commissioners haven’t forgotten about them, though our districts were hit hard as well.”
Assistant County Assessor Kyle Holmes met with disaster victims on Monday to make certain all had received a visit from his office to assess their damage.
“If anybody has damage and they haven’t seen an assessor or called our office, please call us now because we need to get out to everybody. At some point we’re going to have to stop doing these initial assessments, probably around Aug. 1, so we need to see everyone as soon as possible.”
Holmes said his office, with the help of 28 licensed appraisers from other counties paired with public volunteers, have gone through close to 6,000 buildings in Carlton County going door to door in Moose Lake, Barnum, Carlton, Thomson and Cloquet within the time frame of about a week. Those buildings having more than about 10 percent damage will have to be revisited by the team from the assessor’s office in October, November, December or January to figure out if those homeowners have fixed the damages and if not, how their property value will be adjusted.
Carlton County Economic Development Director Pat Oman, acting as emergency management branch director for housing and commercial property damage, said there was a common theme among those who visited his table at the Disaster Recover Center in Barnum over the weekend.
“The theme is ‘no insurance,’” he said. “It’s very rare that someone has insurance that covers the flooding. All of them are looking for funding mechanisms to help address housing damage that they have.”
Oman said the county is reviewing its Small Cities Development Grant Program as possibly the most viable option to help those people out. Though the county has already disbursed the Small Cities money awarded in 2011, Oman said the Legislature can vote to create additional Small Cities Development award funding if a special session is called.
Since Carlton County already has the network in place to administer this program at the county level, Oman said it would be a very simple way to address the housing and commercial needs of flood victims immediately, adding he has talked with Sen. Tony Lourey and Rep. Bill Hilty about supporting that measure in the Legislature.
The Small Cities program makes it possible for qualified homeowners to get a $21,000 award (or $40,000 for a commercial business) in the form of a zero interest, deferred, 10-year forgivable loan.
“For a lot of people their damages are much more than that,” said Oman, “but at least you’re giving them hope and heading them in the right direction. If someone is about to say, ‘I’m going to walk away,’ and then you put something like this in front of them, they might think it’s worth sticking around for. Then they’re invested back into the community and back into their homes.”
Anderson said if flood victims were unable to make it to any of the Disaster Recovery Centers, it’s not too late to talk with someone.
“Do it sooner than later,” she encouraged, directing them to contact either Carlton County Emergency Management Director Brian Belich at 218-384-3236, or dial 211.
“Our first step is to try to help people as soon as possible,” said Anderson.