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Flood issues preoccupy Rushford and city council

Fri, Oct 12th, 2007
Posted in Government

RUSHFORD - The brittle rubble of a flood-wrecked Rushford home swings through midair in the steel maw of a powerful machine then drops into a Red Box container at the curb sending a wind-pushed plume of blue dust across the street into windowless houses waiting to be crushed and hauled to the landfill. As of last week, some 30-demolition permits have been filed at City Hall.

An Irregular Fall Season

Scores of buildings have already been repaired, basements constructed under them while gutted interiors, propped-up on temporary columns, dried-out. Truckloads of new furnaces and all the shiny ductwork, new hot water heaters, new washers-and-dryers have been installed. New wiring, new insulation, new siding. While FEMA trailers occupy some emptied lots, in others sit half-houses, middles removed, wings clipped, old original structures dismantled to leave more recent additions attached to nothing, open to rain and cold wind for everyone who drives by to examine. Uncounted others remain more-or-less untouched, unopened, unwanted for whatever reason since the mid-August flood left the former inhabitants homeless.

Abandoned homes? "We don't know for sure the number," said Kathy Zacher, Rushford City Clerk. "We don't know for sure if people who've relocated will come back. But it looks like there are some houses that haven't had any work done on them. Clearly, to walk away like that, those owners have issues. The long-term flood recovery team and the Red Cross will identify and try to work with them," she said.

The remarkable effort so far to repair neighborhoods and businesses, along with rebooting all the software of community, is balanced precariously against the second-and-third-wind it will take Rushford to go the distance to full recovery.

Certainty and uncertainty compete to frustrate the most unflappable. FEMA, SBA, State, County and City regulations you can count on to erode momentum and dull pencils. Legal frameworks designed to ensure fairness and minimize fraud may-or-may-not guarantee financing adequate to rebuild your home or certify that your temporary business quarters comply with the State building code.

The tide of volunteers has ebbed. Meals at Montini Hall ended two-weeks-ago. So has "free" curbside collection of flood-debris. FEMA is paying for the initial clean-up. The mountain of mess near the water tower has been whittled down to nothing and the MPCA declared the site clean and closed. Recycling and trash pick-up in red plastic bags has resumed. Only certified, flood-related demolition material disposal costs will now be reimbursed.

Safe to say, there have never been so many good-intentions and so much government at the same time in Rushford. Across the southeast Minnesota disaster area, government agencies, charity organizations, non-profit groups and individuals have already given millions-of-dollars and in-kind-contributions to flood relief and recovery.

"The money is still coming in," said Zacher, referring to money donated to the Rushford Disaster Relief Fund. "It's up to around $135,000," she explained. "When the fund was set up the day after the flood, nobody gave much thought to how it would be handled. After looking at the regulations and considering efficiency, the [City Council Appointed] recovery team transferred $80,000 to Semcac, retaining 40-percent for long-term needs. Using Red Cross lists, Semcac has disbursed $300 to people whose homes were destroyed, $200 to those with major-to-minor damage, and $100 to those not directly damaged yet affected by the flood. That's the first round."

Something on the order of one-third of Rushford housing stock was damaged or destroyed by the flood and two-thirds of its businesses, including a trio of cooperatives, the entire medical community, the banks and pretty-much everything else downtown. Structural, inventory and economic losses have been estimated at close to $30-million. By last week, dozens of local businesses had managed to reopen, most in temporary facilities or in a limited capacity. Non-FEMA trailers used by businesses - Rushford State Bank, State Farm Insurance, Tri-County Electric, Farmer's Elevator, the dental office, to list a few - caught the attention of building inspectors, leading last week to a number of citations related to tie-downs, public access and public safety.

What about State aid to help businesses rebuild? In an 8-October letter to the City, Dan McElroy, DEED Commissioner in charge of disbursing flood aid to local businesses, indicated that Rushford's community application will be approved. Stressing that DEED would prefer 50-percent forgivable loans, with 50-percent repaid in equal shares to the Minnesota Investment Fund and the City, McElroy tentatively agreed to, "Loan deferrals up to 75% under certain conditions with loan underwriting and review conducted by another entity". The Commissioner added, "... we can offer some suggestions as to what criteria could be considered by those borrowers."

Regular Council Session

Flood-related matters continued to preoccupy City leaders and concerned citizens at the Council meeting on Tuesday 9-October.

Frustration flared-up briefly over temporary trailer violations that led to a cease-and-desist order being taped to the Farmer's Elevator Co-op in the middle of harvest. Mayor Les Ladewig cited public safety concerns underlying the state building code and explained that Farmer's Co-op was working quickly to comply with the code.

Some business owners complained that debris was not picked-up as promised before FEMA stopped reimbursing for disposal of flood-damaged material on 30-September. After a brief explanation of policy and terminology related to flood-debris and demolition-debris by City administrator Windy Block, Mayor Ladewig stated, "We will get it cleaned up." [The debris in question was removed Thursday afternoon.]

Council members Herb Highum, Nancy Benson, Laura Deering and Larry Johnson unanimously consented to six-agenda items related to financial statements and claims by city staff, police, fire department and public works. Appointment of judges for the 6-November general election was approved.

Under general business, the Council unanimously approved five resolutions acknowledging flood recovery contributions.

1. Rushford Festivities, Inc. presented chief Mike Ebner and the Rushford fire department with a $10,000 check for their, "brave and noble efforts," during the flood.

2. Shirley Foss of Cannon Falls donated $500 to the fire department.

3. Lakeview Memorial Hospital of Stillwater donated a 1995 Ford Braun ambulance to Rushford ambulance.

4. Leroy Ambulance Service donated $1000 to Rushford ambulance.

5. Fire department donations from New Germany ($500), Five Rivers ($1000), Dexter ($1000), Kasson ($500), New Albin ($250) and Dodge County Court House Employees ($861) totaled $4111.

In addition, the Council considered a resolution to issue a General Obligation Bond in the amount of $400,000 to finance past and current utility repairs on Harry St., Larson Lane, High St., and Elm St. Bond advisor Mike Bubany explained that Rushford State and Associated banks would each participate at an interest rate of 4.25-percent. The Council unanimously approved.

The Council discussed the plan to deal with city wells. As a result of inspections after the flood, 275-sandpoint wells and 25-large-diameter casing wells have been discovered. The Council unanimously approved a resolution to present property owners with the plan to seal cross-contaminating wells, with the option of maintaining and regularly inspecting non-connected wells used only for outdoor watering.

Grant agreement between the City and the State Commissioner of Transportation for airport operation and maintenance was unanimously approved.

Other Business

The Council discussed long-term flood recovery issues. The City will consider asking FEMA to fund a fulltime flood recovery director. Mayor Ladewig announced that U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Congressman Tim Walz would bring the Roseau mayor to discuss long-term flood recovery with Rushford officials on Thursday.

• An inter-faith group known as RADAR - the Rushford Area Disaster Alliance for Recovery - has emerged as a long-term recovery committee to work with the City appointed recovery team. In the words of Council member Deering, "I appreciate the group's momentum. They're on the right track."

RADAR spokesperson Sue Hoff commented that, though an inter-faith organization at present, "We are open to all interested groups."

• Mayor Ladewig stated that DEED had accepted the community application for business aid. "They weren't completely happy, but are willing to try to work with us. The other affected communities have requested substantial amounts," Ladewig explained. "so we will have to be ready to prioritize our needs."

• Administrator Block noted that demolition and removal of trailers from Bluffview park appeared to be progressing under a County-approval plan after a delay caused by confusion over County and FEMA responsibilities. "The County may have to reauthorize the plan. But we want to get it done," Block said. "Let the County get the job done."

• Council unanimously approved allowing Good Shepherd Home to apply to the State for a fireworks permit for a retirement party.

• Council unanimously approved Stumpy's application for an upcoming weekend street dance.

• Council unanimously approved per diem expenses to bring in the Creekside Park playground designer to discuss rehabilitating the facility damaged by the flood.

• Council member Highum explained that, lacking a quorum at the 1-October Tree Board meeting, members approved a school proposal to plant trees near the playground on Rushford Ave. in the name of former Principal Bruce Blixt.

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