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County flood recovery on track, but some wounds still haven’t healed

“The basic message is 95 percent positive,” said Long Term Recovery Manager Drew Digby in a final flood recovery wrap-up Tuesday at the meeting of the Carlton County Committee of the Whole.

Digby told commissioners that basically 90-95 percent of repairs incurred from the June 2012 flooding have been completed in the county. The flooding damaged more than 900 homes and businesses and caused more than $40 million in private property damage. Digby said not only has the lion’s share of the repair work been completed — at a rate faster than expected — but private property values in the county are now higher than before the flood. Digby said since statistics show that it is not unusual for a county or region to lose 2-5 percent of its tax base as the result of this type of catastrophic event, he feels optimistic that the county is headed in the right direction.

He qualified that optimism by saying a recent survey of flood victims showed that many report they still have modest repairs to complete, with a handful still undergoing major repairs or complete reconstruction.

“The bad news is that the county lost 20 homes (as a result of the flood), which were either bought out through state or federal programs, or were abandoned,” he stated.

Digby said the county may still lose a few more of the flood-damaged homes due to mold issues, which are continuing to show up in some of the structures, he said.

Digby reported that about half of home and business owners reported they paid for flood repairs out of their own pockets, with approximately a quarter of them saying they took at least $10,000 out of savings or retirement funds to do so. He said flood damage created some $8 million in additional household debt, with approximately one third of flood victims reporting they had problems paying their debts because of the flood expenses. He said the county-administered Resiliency Grant is working to help those people make sound decisions when it comes to financial planning to help them keep their heads above water and plan for the future.

The total assessment of flood damage amounted to $39 million in property damage, said Digby, with $19 million incurred by residential homeowners. Digby said 213 people in the county received some $5.1 million in state and federal loans to assist with flood repair.

Digby credited “a lot of great small programs and a lot of people who pitched in” with the effectiveness of the recovery process thus far, specifically citing the work of the Carlton County United Way, Lutheran Social Services, and all those who served on the recovery committee.

“There were a lot of really good partnerships formed,” he commented, “that brought in $600,000-$700,000 in support programs.”

He said the fact that the county decided to partner with the entire region in its recovery efforts was also a benefit, since collectively the group was able to leverage far more money.

Digby then went on to outline some of the long-term concerns that the county should watch out for.

“While the visible damage is almost completely gone,” he said, “there are a significant number of issues that the county should monitor.”

He said about one third of flood victims responding to the survey report they are still experiencing a lot of anger, frustration, stress and tension, stating many had to dramatically change their life plans because of the flood.

“Every time we have a heavy rain, I get phone calls from some of those people wondering, ‘What if?’” related Digby.

Digby said some have also experienced tension over just what the definition of “flood recovery” itself should be — whether it means a home or business should merely be returned to a state of “safe, sanitary and secure” or whether the expectation should be that it is brought back to a greater level than before to make it more resilient to such events in the future.

He suggested mental health case management should continue to be provided to flood victims, and added that Carlton County Emergency Management Director Brian Belich and Joanne Erspamer from Carlton County Health and Human Services will continue to work together to support local flood recovery efforts.

Digby said another issue in the future could be flood insurance. He said since no one ever expected flooding to the degree experienced in 2012, most never even considered flood insurance. Fewer than 100 residents in the county carried flood insurance prior to the flood, and now that such an event has occurred it will likely be far more expensive to secure.

Finally, Digby warned of debt, mold and “a lot of minor repairs” still out there, saying as time passes any or all of those things might take a turn for the worse if not managed properly.

“In addition,” he concluded, “there is significant work to make the county more resilient to a future disaster that could be done. The state is also moving to improve the speed and coordination of its disaster programs related to Long Term Recovery.”

Digby’s last week of work with the county will be next week.