By HEIDI HERTENSEN
Iowa Representative Congresswoman Cindy Axne visited Shenandoah Nov. 6 as she is trying to get relief to people affected by the flooding who need it the most.
Axne said, “There is no process in place to deal with disasters at a federal level.” She said she is trying to work on that and get money that is needed into peoples’ hands.
She said response is different when it comes to disaster recovery, compared to floods.
“What I’ve seen with the flood is that they assess things differently,” said Axne.
Axne explained FEMA would only pay $17,000 or $18,000 to repair a home based on what they believe is usable space.
For example, she said if two adults are living in a split-level home, and have a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room and laundry on the first level they don’t really need the space in the lower level repaired because there is enough room in the upper level for two people.
“I’ve seen grown men, grandfathers, break down in tears because they can’t have their grandchildren over because the place where they stayed was downstairs,” said Axne.
She explained the lower level was considered unsafe because of exposure to wires and no heat ducts.
“That’s one of the battles we’re fighting. FEMA does not reimburse people fully,” said Axne. “ It’s not even enough to cover half, let alone the whole thing.”
Axne said she recently sent a letter to eight different agencies about money being held up in the departments and not being sent to people who need it.
“Back in April, I was able to secure $3 billion of funding for the disaster bill,” said Axne. “I was thrilled that we were able to get that and tag to Midwest floods and then almost another additional billion dollars from fish and wildlife trust fund and the highway trust fund. So we have almost $4 billion, and we’ve seen it trickle in.”
Axne said different options are going to be looked at to see if they can get the money rolling faster but emphasized that she is on top of these agencies.
“If we don’t hear back from them within the week, we’re going to be after them again,” said Axne. “We’re going to consistently publicize that we’re not getting information from them and hopefully we will start seeing better output. “
Axne said things are not as intense with the United States Department of Agriculture.
“We’re doing pretty well with USDA,” said Axne. “Obviously we’ve got a big connection with USDA with being an agriculture state and they understand the relevancy given the trade war and the renewable fuel standard waivers. So they’re doing a pretty good job of getting things out, but some of our other departments are falling behind.”
Axne explained not all of the outlet breaches on the Iowa side are closed.
With the probability of rivers remaining high through the middle of December, the chance of increased precipitation about the same time and additional water being released from northern basins, work will not be able to begin on those outlet areas until possibly March, she said.
Axne said they are working on getting the outlet contracts together so everything is ready when they can begin work.
“One of the bigger issues related to this is we’ve got a lot of levees on people’s individual properties, and those are old levees,” said Axne.
Axne said some of these old levees were built with the Army Corps of Engineers, but the maintenance and oversight were transferred away from the corps to individuals or the local township. Now these local townships don’t have the money and the resources to fix the levees.
Axne said these non-corps levees that still need repaired are allowing water to come in and they need to figure out where they can look at this more holistically and get those levees fixed.
“So I’m going to go back to the corps and talk to them and say ‘That’s not part of your authority, but since its limiting success in other areas what can we do to possibly help you to have the authority to go help fix this,’” said Axne.
Axne explained the corps operates off of a master manual and with congressional authority.
“So the decisions that they make, the money that they have is all run through Congress,” said Axne.
Axne said the master manual includes many things. One is how they make decisions around the vendors they bring on to fix problems.
“It’s usually based on the lowest bidder,” said Axne. ”That’s sometimes not the answer that we need.”
Axne said Iowans know it is better to make an investment because the return on it will be better than spending less and then having to do more in the long run.
Axne said the corps have eight areas of interest that are looked at and how they manage the river. They look at wildlife and habitat protection to making sure homes are not flooded and ensure livelihoods.
Axne said she confirmed through the corps every single piece is looked at, but anything related to people’s safety is always the number one priority.
“I believe we’ve got good people working there,” said Axne. “But they do need to look at all of those issues, and sometimes that means that maybe the decision they made previously on how to shore up a riverbank helped from a wildlife perspective but could have increased problems for water flow and that may have exacerbated part of this flooding as well. So we’ve got to make sure that whatever responsibilities they have whatever authority they’ve been given that it first and foremost protects people,” said Axne.
Axne said there needs to be a type of ranking system.
“I believe there should be flexibility, but the overarching rank should always be people’s livelihood and economic prosperity,” she said.
Axne said the things that need to be done first and foremost are:
1) Update the manual to reflect a different authority that meets today’s infrastructure needs in regards to the extreme weather patterns we’re seeing.
2) Ensure that the master manual doesn’t put people’s livelihood life or economic opportunity at risk because they include those other seven pieces.
3) Change their authority, so it isn’t constantly about the lowest bid.
Axne said after the bulk of the flooding, there will still be issues to deal with because of a result of having water on the ground for so long.
She said there are going to be farmers who won’t be able to plant.
Axne said she needs to ensure that we don’t start seeing the farmers not being able to get crop insurance because they can’t participate and prevent plant.