FEMA, State Officials Explain Disaster Application Process

 

Tyler Steen with the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management (SDOEM) speaks Wednesday during a briefing in Yankton on the disaster application process.

Four months after a bomb cyclone hit the Yankton region, the next phase of disaster recovery has just begun.

More than 70 area officials learned Wednesday about the application process for federal assistance. The meeting at the Yankton No. 2 fire station featured presentations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management (SDOEM).

Local governments believe they will deal with the aftermath of the March 13 storm and flooding for months and even years. The preliminary assessment showed an estimated $46 million in damages statewide. Yankton County sustained an estimated $21 million in losses, with $18 million from Yankton alone.

Only those events arising from the period of March 13-April 26 can fall under the current disaster declaration, according to Tyler Steen with the SDOEM.

"I know the flooding didn’t stop April 26, but as long as the damages date back to that event, we can include it," he said.

The public assistance (PA) process covers public property, such as buildings and infrastructure. FEMA takes into account four factors: the applicant, facility, work and cost. Non-profit entities can apply for assistance, with their eligibility to be determined. Emergency work may consist of debris removal or emergency protective work, while the permanent work is intended for changes of a longer nature.

FOLLOWING THE RULES

Projects which don’t comply with laws and regulations may be disqualified from receiving assistance or be required to return any funding, Steen said. The application process can include categories such as equipment, materials and labor, Steen said.

Disaster applications must meet deadlines and complete work in a timely manner, Steen said. Circumstances can play a major difference in terms of making progress on a project, he added.

"If we ask, ‘Why haven’t you got it done?’ and you say that you can’t get a contractor, we can try to help you," he said. "But if you tell us that you just don’t feel like (getting the work done), we’ll want the (disaster) money back."

Steen acknowledged contractors can be difficult to find, especially during a time of disasters when many parties may be tackling work at the same time.

When it comes to costs, the federal government uses historical costs to avoid inflated bills for work done, Steen said. "If it’s normally $20 an hour, you can’t say that, because FEMA is involved and paying for it, the rate is now $40 an hour," he explained.

Applicants should keep excellent records from the very beginning of disaster work, Steen said. "Make sure it’s done on the front end," he said.

In addition, contracts need to be written specific to the damage and not broad or vague on the work. Also, the applying entity is responsible for its contractors meeting all requirements.

"The contractor and you are joined at the hip," Steen said. "They need to understand and know what is needed to comply. If a contractor didn’t get a permit, then it’s your fault, too."

The threshold for determining small versus large projects stands at $128,900 for fiscal year 2019, Steen said. "If you’re doing something different (than the original purpose), you need to contact us and FEMA before you do the work," he said.

A public entity may complete a disaster relief project and have unspent funds or a cost under-run, he said. In that case, the entity can submit a proposal for another project to use the remaining funds.

Regardless of the work, public entities need to comply with regulations such as environmental and historic preservation, Steen added.

Along those lines, FEMA representative Kyle Flesness noted that his agency does check that disaster recovery projects meet state regulations. In some cases, a party may use materials or a process that may disqualify the work from receiving federal assistance.

In addition, applicants must be aware of their work’s impact on endangered species or a historic site, he said. In addition, the use or release of hazardous materials can impact whether a project receives disaster funding.

"The biggest reason (federal agencies) pull back funding is because of endangered species or historic preservation," Flesness said.

 

DOING IT RIGHT

Steen cautioned against using vague references or submitting figures with little explanation of the expense. "Be descriptive. List the location, damages and what happened," he said.

Steen provided a funding breakdown. FEMA will cover 75% of the cost, with the state providing 10% and the applicant covering the remaining 15%.

At the conclusion of the session, FEMA representative Kevin Helland noted applicants must meet state and federal regulatory regulations in order to qualify for grants.

In the end, applicants hold the burden of meeting all details with the application process, Helland said. He urged entities to make sure their information is current and accurate or that projected needs don’t fall far short of what will be required.

In addition, Helland encouraged entities to file their applications as soon as possible and to expect a waiting period before receiving a response.

"Nationally, we have 30 states with a presidential (disaster) declaration," he said. "South Dakota alone has 700-800 applicants. This is going to take us time."

LOCAL REACTION

After Wednesday’s briefing, Yankton County Commission chairman Dan Klimisch told the Press & Dakotan he wants FEMA or other agencies to maintain a point of contact in Yankton for making disaster applications.

"The City of Yankton has a staff and people who can help," he said. "But in a small town or townships, it’s all volunteers. They work during the day, and then they work on this (disaster application) at night or on weekends. If they rush through it, mistakes can be made."

Yankton City Manager Amy Leon said she remains confident the city will receive disaster funding. However, the level of federal dollars remains to be seen.

"We’ll go back and take a look at everything. We’ll see what type of projects can get funds and the different categories of damage," she told the Press & Dakotan. "We’re going to have to make some decisions with the City Commission on trying to return to the existing condition (of infrastructure). In some places, we can’t do that."

The City of Yankton is fortunate to have staff members and other resources, such as District III Planning and Development, with the knowledge and experience of working through the disaster application process, Leon said.

Gov. Kristi Noem has inspected flood damage in Yankton, and state agencies have assisted city officials, Leon said. "They’ve been really responsive," she said.

Now, city leaders face an intense period of handling both the disaster process and the regular daily operations of city government, she added.

"For the next six months, we’ll be working on this (application) again," she said. "There will be some investment of time. We’re asking people to be patient."

 

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