Secretary inspects levees

Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

Escorted by the U.S. Secret Service and Montana’s two U.S. senators, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured concerned residents in Great Falls on Tuesday that the Sun River levee should be able to be certified without causing too much of a financial burden.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is a part of Homeland Security, requires levees across the country to be certified as part of a program to digitize and upgrade flood maps to ensure the structures protect the public safety.

Napolitano said U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester put what’s been a contentious local issue on her radar.

“At one point, I reached Senator Tester on his tractor,” said Napolitano, standing on the levee with the Sun River flowing behind her.

Residents who rely on the 15-foothigh levee are worried about the cost and red tape of recertification, and that prompted Napolitano to make a stop in Great Falls before she visits the state’s northern border today on other business.

About 865 properties are protected by the 7.6-mile earthen levee on the Sun River. Residents there have been complaining to the congressional delegation that the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levee, no longer is certifying the facilities even though the agency continues to conduct annual inspections.

That leaves local residents footing the bill of the FEMArequired certification, which they say they can’t afford.

“We don’t have any money to spare,” Joe Beard, commissioner of the Vaughn Levee District, told Napolitano.

The 2½-mile Vaughn levee, constructed in 1969, protects 250 households a few miles from Great Falls. The Great Falls levee was completed in 1986.

Sandy Mares, administrative commissioner of the Great Falls Levee District, told Napolitano that the levee would be a good candidate for a pilot program in which FEMA and the Army Corps would be required to work together on certifications. “I’m serious,” Mares said “We’ve got a good project here. When we voted this thing in, we were told we would have 500 years of protection here.”

After Napolitano left, Mares said she is praying that more effort will be made to reduce the cost of certification for residents. Beard said it was good to have “more powerful people” taking a look at the situation.

Baucus said the solution might be getting additional federal funding for the Army Corps so it can do the certifications. He added that because of Montana’s small population, the cost of the certifications stands to hit the state especially hard because the expense can’t be spread among as many people, he said.

“I just urge you to tap into your gubernatorial instinct,” Baucus told Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and the third secretary of Homeland Security. She is the second Obama administration Cabinet member to visit the state in two days, after Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius traveled to Libby on Monday.

“A cookie-cutter approach rarely works,” Napolitano said at a media briefing after the tour, when asked if something could be done. “This is a big country with different needs and different conditions.”

FEMA is giving local levee districts the option of signing temporary agreements, which Robin Finegan, FEMA’s Denver- based regional administrator, said was like a “snooze button” to give them more time to secure financing.

State Rep. Bob Mehlhoff said residents don’t want to sign “something they know they can’t afford.”

Napolitano flew into Great Falls late Tuesday afternoon. She arrived at the levee with Baucus and Tester and U.S. Customs and Borders Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin. Four or five SUVs turned off of 27th Street Southwest into a dead-end, where a crowd waited on a hill.

Secret Service officials initially kept residents at a distance from the Homeland Security secretary.

Napolitano, dressed in a black pants suit, walked onto a concrete walk-out on the levee, which stands 26 feet above Sun River, with the crowd on her heels. She leaned over the railing to take a look at the river before listening to the concerns of levee district members and spending about an hour at the site.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve heard FEMA and the Corps weren’t working off the same sheet,” she said.

Napolitano said FEMA is mandated to produce the upgraded flood maps, which can only be done if the levees are certified, but “somewhere here there’s a solution” to getting the maps produced while limiting the expense to local residents without compromising public safety.

“We are going to have to deal with this,” she said. “You’ve done a good job putting it where it needs to be.”

Ryan Pietramali, branch chief of FEMA’s mitigation division in Denver, said 1,400 provisional agreements have been signed nationwide, and about a third of those facilities have been certified. FEMA is willing to accept certifications from the Army Corps or a private engineer, he said. The Sun River levee is in good shape, but better information is being added to the maps through the program, he said.

“Some of these maps were 40 years old, and they didn’t take into account new science,” he said.

FEMA embarked on the nationwide effort to update flood hazard maps in flood-prone communities in 2003.

However, Mehlhoff said the program doesn’t take regional differences into account.

“This is not a New Orleans situation,” he said of the Sun River levee. “Right now, they’re all using the same criteria, and the costs are exceedingly high.” Today, Napolitano is scheduled to visit border protection operations at the ports of Piegan and Sweetgrass. Stops in Sunburst and Havre also are on the agenda.

Napolitano has visited Montana before, she said. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she backpacked in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Spanish Peaks Mountain Range in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. She also campaigned in the state for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.