Flood recovery efforts winding downFlood recovery efforts from the June 2012 storm that hit Carlton County and surrounding areas have been plugging along, but Long Term Recovery Manager Drew Digby said there is still work to be done.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Flood recovery efforts from the June 2012 storm that hit Carlton County and surrounding areas have been plugging along, but Long Term Recovery Manager Drew Digby said there is still work to be done.
In an update to the Carlton County Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, Digby reported the number of open cases through Lutheran Social Services (LSS) is now down to 129, adding that a large number of those will likely close when the Minnesota Housing loans are finalized and construction is completed.
Digby said one of the major issues in the flood recovery effort thus far has been the speed (or lack of it) at which loans have closed.
“In August, 234 loans for Carlton County residents had been approved for a total of $5.8 million,” said Digby, “but dozens of others have not yet closed in the 13 months following the flooding.”
He went on to explain that a number of the applicants for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans have delayed or cancelled their applications, in part because lower interest rates could be found on the commercial market and required less paperwork, and in part because some felt they couldn’t afford the loan terms.
“There are also a lot of retired people who don’t want to get into a 20- to 30-year loan obligation when they are already facing major housing decisions,” added Digby.
He said of the 105 who have applied for $2,820,601 in loans from the SBA, some $1,322,700 of them have been cancelled or postponed.
The Quick Start loan program has seen somewhat better results, with about 65 percent already closed. Digby said this is probably due in large part to the fact that the maximum loan amount was increased from $30,000 to $40,000 (and in select cases, even higher) and in part because the SBA agreed to split loans into two parts so homeowners could proceed with emergency repairs to furnaces, electrical systems and hot water heaters before they could get complete estimates for the full restoration of their homes.
“The majority of the loan applicants have taken advantage of this option to speed reconstruction,” said Digby.
In the meantime, he said, the push is on to clear up the obstacles and move things along.
“We want these loans closed as fast as possible before winter,” he added.
In the area of rental housing assistance, Digby said some $125,000 was allotted through Lakes and Pines to help cover rent and other expenses such as deposits for flood-devastated families who fall within certain income guidelines. Only $13,211 of that amount had been spent by the end of June. Digby said one of the biggest problems for case managers has been finding suitable rental housing for displaced clients.
Digby praised the Carlton County United Way for its work in disbursing $499,986 in Regional Flood Funds to 217 Carlton County families for unmet needs (such as mold evaluation or the purchase of home appliances damaged in the flood) and reconstruction requests (for such things as materials and professional services needed in reconstruction).
Volunteer reconstruction efforts continue, with the Lutheran Social Services disaster recovery team logging some 3,521 volunteer hours in Carlton County at 23 homes this summer.
Digby went on to discuss upcoming transition issues in the long-term flood recovery effort. He reported that LSS will consolidate its offices into the Cloquet office within the next month, and they have funding to maintain a limited staff of two case managers through the end of the year.
One of the most exciting things, Digby stated, is the fact that Carlton County Health and Human Services has been selected as the administrator for a $500,000 regional behavioral health grant. The grant will help make mental health professionals available to provide behavioral health case management for flood survivors who need it. He added that those resources will be available at the upcoming Operation Community Connect on Sept. 24 at the Cloquet National Guard Armory.
One of the roadblocks delaying many flood recovery projects, Digby said, is the fact that flood repairs are often complicated projects where all of the issues are not immediately visible to the contractors and specialists who evaluate a home before construction work begins.
“We are looking into whether we can hire an organization to provide additional consultation to homeowners who need assistance in understanding their construction options and evaluating bids from different contractors,” said Digby.
Finally, Digby reported that many families who were able to make the immediate repairs to their homes following the flood now face a financial crisis in paying off the expenses from the flood.
“A substantial number of foreclosures in which the flood was a substantial contributor are possible,” said Digby, “though we’ve found groups like LSS can make a real difference to those working families trying to save their homes.”
County Coordinator Dennis Genereau suggested that what needs to be done next is to put the lessons learned from the flood recovery into historical perspective, including what worked, what didn’t, what resources were used and what resources it would have been nice to have in place.
He added that the Board and all involved parties need to start looking at what sort of closure to the recovery effort needs to be made.
“Sometime in the next month or so, we need to look at what that closure should look like,” said Genereau, adding that there will likely be disagreement on when and how it should happen, and whether it should be delayed until the recovery effort is “made whole, or something less than that.”
He pointed out that Digby is under contract with the county through Dec. 31, 2013, and prior to that time some decisions need to be made whether to conclude or continue the contract.