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Federal disaster declaration imminent, governor says

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses a meeting of local officials in Spencer following the historic flood that hit the town on June 22. (Photo by Nick Lowrey)
By Nick Lowrey Staff Writer

Gov. Kim Reynolds met with local officials and response agencies in Spencer on June 24 to discuss ongoing relief and long-term recovery efforts following the historic flood that hit the town over the weekend.

Reynolds stopped in Spencer as part of a tour of flood-damaged communities in northwest Iowa. She said she had submitted a request for an expedited federal disaster declaration for the region on June 23. A federal declaration is the first step in securing federal recovery aid for individuals and public infrastructure.

“It's really important that we're able to get that disaster declaration as quickly as we can so that we can start to provide some of that certainty for our communities across the state who have been impacted.”

Iowa 4th District U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra traveled with Reynolds during the tour. He said he’d spoken directly with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorcas, who told him the administration was pushing to have the federal disaster declaration on President Joe Biden’s desk and signed within 24 hours.

“Kudos to the governor for getting all the paperwork and everything done so we can get this on the road as soon as possible,” Feenstra said.

John Benson, director of Iowa’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, outlined ongoing coordination efforts through the state's Emergency Operations Center. For the most part state officials are responding to requests for help funneled through Clay County Emergency Manager Eric Tigges. However, as flood waters continue to recede and after the federal disaster declaration is signed, the IHSEM will begin helping communities and individuals apply for federal recovery assistance.

"Our mission remains the same — to support the citizens here. We'll be engaged in this process as long as it takes to help make Spencer better than it was before," Benson said.

One new tool Benson hopes to use during the likely yearlong flood recovery process is recovery case managers. Essentially, the program will assign flood victims a case manager to help them navigate the often complex array of federal disaster recovery programs.

Benson said home and business owners should take steps to protect themselves and ensure their eligibility for federal assistance programs. Those steps include documenting all of the damage their property or business sustained during the flood. Benson said taking pictures of the damage before getting too far into the cleanup process could be critical to getting federal recovery assistance.

Scott Marler, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, addressed infrastructure damage from flooded bridges and washed-out roads in the area. Three bridges in the Spencer area remain closed, at least partially because state officials can’t certify their safety until flood waters recede further, Marler said.

“We need the water to continue to go down before we can get in there and inspect their structural integrity because we would not want a situation where scour has washed out below those bridges,” Marler said.

The U.S. Highway 71 bridge connecting Spencer's north half with the town's south remains closed until inspectors can certify its safety. The two other bridges that need post-flood inspections are on Highway 18, northwest and southeast of Spencer, respectively.

Affordable housing, uninsured property losses, debris removal and long-term behavioral health services were also identified as key recovery priorities. The Departments of Natural Resources, Public Safety, and Health and Human Services are working with local officials to provide guidance and waivers to rules when needed.

Kaylee Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, said her department has already been making sure Medicare and Medicaid recipients can access healthcare and prescription medications as needed. Gracia also said her department will apply for Disaster SNAP benefits once the federal disaster declaration is approved. Disaster SNAP will allow flood victims more flexibility in qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Reynolds pledged the state's continued support through the recovery process. Local officials expressed gratitude for the collaborative response but recognized full recovery from a flood of the magnitude Spencer experienced would be a complex, long-term effort.

Spencer Mayor Steve Bomgaars thanked all those who have worked tirelessly since the initial response, which sheltered over 380 people at its peak.

"The outpouring of support from our community and others has been tremendous, but we wouldn't be where we are without the efforts of our first responders and volunteers," Bomgaars said.

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