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Obama declares Northland flooding a federal disaster

Vermillion Street in Thomson was damaged when Thomson Reservoir - located just beyond the top of the slope - overflowed its banks. (Steve Kuchera /

It's officially a federal disaster.

Minnesota counties will get federal disaster aid to help with costs from the June storms and flooding that left at least $110 million in public infrastructure damage.

President Obama signed the major federal disaster declaration on Friday, making 13 Minnesota counties and three tribal nations eligible for federal assistance. The White House announcement came a week after Gov. Mark Dayton, who requested the aid, visited Duluth for a second time to get clearer damage estimates.

"We are thankful that the president moved so quickly on this declaration," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said in a statement. "Now we can move forward with confidence that (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) will be there to assist our region."

While the money would pay mostly for public infrastructure losses, FEMA will make another sweep through the region to see if individual aid should be made available.

Aitkin, Carlton, Lake, Pine and St. Louis counties and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will get visits by FEMA assessment teams beginning Wednesday. It's estimated that the flood damage in Carlton, St. Louis and Lake counties from the June 19-20 rain storm totals at least $104 million. Flood aid will come in two forms, with 75 percent of funding coming from FEMA and a 25 percent match from state and local governments. The FEMA money comes as reimbursement, meaning government bodies need to submit claims to FEMA for repair work already done.

The first is public assistance -- meaning to public entities, not to the public at large -- that will provide aid to organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities. The second category involves hazard mitigation grants for work to reduce long-term risks to life and property from natural hazards. All counties in Minnesota are eligible to apply for assistance under the grant program.

Eligible work includes debris removal, emergency services related to the disaster and repair or replacement of damaged public facilities, such as roads, bridges, buildings, utilities and recreation areas.

Doug Neville, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said the state Legislature would need to convene to approve any state aid. He said that for Obama's declaration to come just a week after the governor sent his request was unprecedented. The state expected to wait at least two weeks to find out, and FEMA and the president are allowed 30 days to decide on aid qualification.

Last week, Dayton said he had no doubts that the aid would come.

"It's a question of when," Dayton said. "It's typically two weeks but we'll see if we can shorten that."

It's estimated that Duluth will need to spend nearly half of the statewide flood damage estimate, $51 million.

Damage in Carlton County is estimated at $30 million. County Commissioner Ted Pihlman represents Moose Lake, a community hit hard by flooding.

"This is great," Pihlman said. "It's not surprising that action was taken, because we had so many excellent people getting all the information together to forward to the president. It shows how hard the people of Carlton County worked to get this together."

Yet one Carlton County city is presently ineligible for the aid, which requires municipalities to be participants in FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. Thomson has not signed up, a FEMA official told the News Tribune.

"That community has chosen not to join the program," said David Schein of FEMA's insurance and outreach team. "Those buildings in the flood plains in Thomson are not eligible for federal disaster assistance."

He said, however, the door isn't shut on Thomson.

"If the community joins the program within 60 days of the president's disaster declaration, then they can get the disaster assistance," Schein said.

The news -- both of the president's declaration and that her community wasn't eligible -- came as a surprise to Thomson City Clerk Ruth Jorgenson.

"We did apply for that a couple for that a couple of years ago. I will definitely look into that," she said.

Damage in Lake County is estimated to be $1.9 million.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be in Barnum and Willow River today to assess flood damage. She will begin in Barnum at 8 a.m. at the fire hall. She begin touring Willow River at 9:15 at City Hall. She was in Duluth on Friday.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate named Mark Neveau as the agency's coordinating officer for recovery operations in the region.

In Wisconsin, where Douglas County suffered an estimated $2 million in infrastructure damage, Gov. Scott Walker has yet to decide whether to ask for federal help.

Walker requested Friday that FEMA conduct a preliminary damage assessment. On July 17, officials will begin looking at Ashland, Bayfield and Douglas counties and tribal land of the Red Cliff Bank of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Officials estimated $11 million in debris clearance, emergency protective measures and damage to roads and other public infrastructure. The University of Wisconsin-Superior had more than $8.5 million in flood damage.

News Tribune editor Robin Washington, Jana Peterson from the Pine Journal and the Associated Press contributed to this report.