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Rebuilding Rural Resilience in Recovery
By Chris Clayton
Thursday, July 11, 2024 4:20PM CDT

OMAHA (DTN) -- Rural America is learning the hard way that more investment is needed to protect rural infrastructure from catastrophic storms.

That includes Iowa, which is now coping with catastrophic damage in the northwestern part of the state following two April tornadoes that also ripped through communities. At least 28 counties have state disaster declarations, and there have been three presidential declarations.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and members of her team on Thursday rolled out a series of new disaster programs -- including a low-interest loan program for farmers -- as communities grapple with at least 2,000 destroyed homes and another 3,000 damaged. In some towns, nearly every single downtown business was wiped out, along with an estimated $130 million in damaged public infrastructure to the state.

"This will be a long-term recovery, and it's going to require many resources to help families rebuild, businesses reopen and communities to come back stronger than before," Reynolds said.

A day earlier, Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., led a U.S. Senate Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on the one-year anniversary of floods in that state. Welch stressed the need for more "resilience" when it comes to rebuilding after natural disasters. He also said federal dollars need to flow better to victims. "We had a situation in Vermont where two times the cost was spent on administration," Welch said.

The hearing highlighted some of the challenges small, rural towns and counties face when staring at millions of dollars in recovery costs.

AGING INFRASTRUCTURE LIKE THE RAPIDAN DAM

Kevin Paap, a commissioner for Blue Earth County, Minnesota, and former president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, testified in the Senate hearing, representing the National Association of Counties. Paap's county was on the national news during last month's flooding as the 100-year-old Rapidan Dam failed. He also pointed out Minnesota has seen seven separate $1 billion disasters since 2023 alone.

"Natural disasters have become more frequent, more severe and more costly," Paap said. He added, "Thousands of aging rural infrastructure projects like our Rapidan Dam pose a threat to communities in future disasters without adequate support."

Recovery is harder for small towns that don't have the funds for cost-share or even to write grants to help receive aid dollars, said Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Most towns simply don't have the professional staff to help recover quickly. Brady pointed to communities in his state with 1,000 or so residents that were looking at $4 million in damages.

"Many counties don't have the expertise," Brady said. "They don't know what's available."

Pointing to more than $130 million in infrastructure damages, Reynolds said the flooding in Iowa affected roads, bridges and water-treatment plants in several small towns. The disaster will continue to require a "whole-of-government approach" Reynolds said. "FEMA's Region 7 team has been on the ground in impacted counties and communities for several weeks and probably will remain for quite some time."

With so many counties affected, Reynolds said officials in some counties are frustrated that they haven't received the same disaster designations as other counties. The governor said it can take time to check all the boxes in the process that requires working with FEMA, Homeland Security and emergency management managers to get the damage reports together.

FARM LOANS

Pointing to farms that were "completely submerged," as well as farms wrecked by the spring tornadoes, Reynolds also criticized USDA's loan programs for farmers.

"What I heard in the weeks that followed was that the interest rates for many of the USDA loans were often much higher than what farmers could get from their local banks and their local lenders," Reynolds said.

Another complaint is that rural businesses can apply for Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans, but farmers are not eligible to apply for the SBA loans in most cases.

"The USDA loans didn't offer the same benefits as these SBA loans," Reynolds said.

With that, the Iowa governor said the Iowa Finance Authority would "bring some parity to farmers" with a new disaster recovery loan program of up to $50,000 per household. Farmers can apply at www.iowagrants.gov.

USDA officials have cited the department having several different programs to help farmers and livestock producers recover from disaster through both the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

FEMA CHANGES

As Iowa and other states look to recover from floods and Hurricane Beryl, FEMA this week also announced that public infrastructure rebuilt with FEMA money will have to be built to be more resilient from flooding. That likely means rebuilt public-works projects will have to be built at least 2 feet above the local flood stages or relocate to safer areas.

In the Senate hearing, Paap and others called for a more rapid response to help rural areas.

To help rural areas recover, Welch wants more authority and funding for USDA's Rural Development state offices to provide more automatic funding and technical assistance after presidential disaster declarations.

"Our small communities can't do it on their own," Welch said. He added, "We need to make sure that the federal programs are spending money to help disaster victims, but not on administrative costs as much, but more on actual relief."

MAYORS SAY FLEXIBILITY NEEDED

On a call Thursday, mayors and leaders of the Mississippi River Towns Initiative also updated flood status on the river. Largely northern parts of the Mississippi River are seeing some moderate flooding, but the lower portion of the river actually got a needed recharge from the rainfall out of Hurricane Beryl.

Asked about new FEMA rules, Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the initiative, said Mississippi River towns have worked in different ways to reduce repetitive flood losses.

"Building back smarter, better and more resilient is something we've had to do," Wellenkamp said. "You just have mayors managing their near-water communities much better now."

Wellenkamp and others called for flexibility to ensure communities can spend disaster money in ways that will help mitigate long-term flood risks.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., in Wednesday's hearing, also stressed flexibility when it comes to disaster recovery. Tuberville said rural communities often are last in line for relief.

"We need to get the government out of the way and reduce regulations to make it easier for communities to stand on their own."

Also see "Hurricane Beryl Joins Hailstorms and Floods Damaging Crops and Ag Infrastructure" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @ChrisClaytonDTN


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