Officials tell Tester flood costs could rise

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

A group of officials meeting in Chinook told U. S. Sen. Jon Tester Tuesday that flood damages could mount over time, leaving cash-strapped local governments with little recourse while not giving them the one-time expenses for government aid.

Hill and Blaine counties officials told Tester that, so far, they have been able to deal with the flooding. However, especially if a fast melt increases the flooding, the costs over time could be more than they can bear.

“If you think about emergencies, you think about one-time events, ” Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller told Tester. “What we’re facing, both counties, is a cumulative effect that could lead to disaster.”

The meeting came during a busy visit to the Hi-Line for Tester, including spending time at Rock Boy’s Indian Reservation tomorrow, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation Tuesday and a morning meeting about the U. S. Canadian border in Havre Tuesday morning.

This year flooding has been a major concern, with high water levels in the deep snow in the northern parts of Hill and Blaine counties. Coupled with the high level of moisture in the soil, giving little buffer to absorb runoff, the counties have been bracing for potentially severe conditions.

Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator Joe Parenteau said that, so far, the damage has been manageable. That could quickly change.

“The potential is there, ” he said. “It all depends on the weather. How fast it melts and runs off.”

Both Tom Fairbank, road and bridge supervisor for Blaine County, and Jerry Otto, who holds that position in Hill County, said they have been dealing with flood issues.

“It’s nothing we couldn’t handle on our own, ” Fairbank said. “It’s all going to depend on the north country.”

Otto said the snow to the north has not melted significantly — snow from the first storms in November still is accumulated there.

Ed Gierke, state Disaster and Emergency Services district coordinator, said two problems could come up regarding flooding. The first is that federal disaster declarations, like the one declared in Hill County and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation last summer, normally are based on single-event disasters.

The disaster in Hill County and the reservation actually sidestepped that. Gierke said the damage assessed really were based on 45 days of accumulated problems.

“Montana’s senators kind of redefined a federal disaster, ” he said.

The other is delays. Gierke said that, once a governor requests a federal disaster declaration, it goes through several reviews before it even gets to the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, who decides whether to give it to the president for a decision.

That can add weeks to starting the process of getting federal aid to the site, he said.

If a request is denied, and appealed, that can add more time, even years.

Tester said that is one thing on which he and the other members of Montana’s congressional delegation can help. They could apply pressure to speed things up, he said.

Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage — and others at the meeting — told Tester the cooperation they have had from agencies such as the National Weather Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and others has been fantastic.

Local community members also have been working with the local governments to prepare, Plumage added.

“Preparedness has been happening, and people are very aware of what is happening in our valley, ” she said.