Rep. Blum visits Marshalltown, talks FEMA funding

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, center, speaks with Marshalltown resident Laural Thompson, left, during a visit Tuesday. as city councilor Sue Cahill looks on. In addition to visiting residents, Blum had a roundtable discussion with city officials and other community stakeholders. Cahill, right, who introduced Blum to residents like Thompson.

Bromley Street resident Laural Thompson is in a tough spot after her house was hit by the July 19 tornado, and she was able to voice her concerns to her congressman Tuesday afternoon.

U.S. Rep. Rod Blum was in Marshalltown for a roundtable discussion with community stakeholders Tuesday. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding was one of the main talking points during both the meeting and when the congressman talked to a few storm victims out in the community, like Thompson.

“The most important, biting concern right now is ‘Will we qualify for the FEMA grant or not?'” said Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer.

Blum and District Director Jack Mescher said the process to try and get FEMA funding is underway. The Gov. Kim Reynolds administration announced last week that they had sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that he declare a disaster in Marshalltown to open up FEMA funding.

Additionally, a letter signed by Blum, U.S. Reps. David Young, Steve King and Dave Loebsack, and U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst was also sent to Trump, urging him to declare a disaster, Mescher said.

Blum said the damage wasn’t deemed enough to automatically trigger FEMA funding. Mescher said Trump can declare a disaster to open up that funding.

“We’re going to follow up and try to make sure that they approve it,” Blum said to Thompson that afternoon on Bromley Street. “If they approve that, somebody like yourself would be eligible for up to $34,000 of help.”

Mescher said FEMA would provide individual help as well as public assistance money. That money will be important for uninsured storm victims, Greer said.

“We learned today that only 36 percent of the houses that MICA is dealing with are insured, so the rest are not,” he said. Mescher said people in that situation will be able to register for aid from FEMA if the funding gets approved by Trump.

“Their particular circumstances will be assessed and they’ll be matched with the programs and various mechanisms for funding,” he said.

Another person looking for answers during a difficult time is Kim Smith. She used to live in a fourth-floor apartment at the Iowa Wholesale building that was hit hard by the tornado. She said she and other residents have not been let back into the building by the company that owns the building, Cohen-Esrey, to collect personal items.

“The owners just are not very understanding of that,” Smith said. “They did get five items out for us: my son’s ashes, a blanket that was made with his clothing, some antique quilts – but that was just the tip of our iceberg, everything we own is up there.”

Blum said he would have his staff call the company to ask how the issue could be resolved so that apartment dwellers could collect their items. Smith said the company had restricted renters from re-entering the structure on the grounds that it is unsafe.

Second Ward City Councilor Sue Cahill set up the meetings with the impacted residents.

“This is one of those ‘falling through the cracks’ stories,” she said of Smith’s concerns. “This is the human side of the story.”

At the roundtable meeting, Blum was also updated on the work Alliant Energy and the Marshalltown Area United Way had done since the storm.

Alliant Director of Operations Dee Brown said the company’s Marshalltown location saw no damage from the storm. Marshalltown location Senior Manager of Operations Carla Gall said over 150 linemen and 85 gas mechanics descended on Marshalltown to restore power after the storm.

Brown said all those who could take power had it restored within days of the tornado.

United Way Director Nancy Steveson said the organization has been working as a “conduit,” directing those reaching out for help to the appropriate services available. So far, she said over $200,000 has been raised for storm relief.

Most of the money came from $100,000 donated by individual Lennox International employees and locations in other states and countries, as well as a $100,000 match from Lennox International itself. Smaller individual donations have also been accepted.

The annual United Way campaign is still scheduled to kick off on Sept. 12, and this year’s fundraising goal is $768,000.

Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce Director Lynn Olberding also asked Blum if he could look into helping expand Marshalltown’s “opportunity zone” as applicable under the 2017 federal tax law. His staff are set to look into expanding the zone in Marshalltown to include the north side of Main Street.

Olberding said the zone offers opportunities for tax incentives in the approved area.

Blum’s visit on Tuesday was his first to Marshalltown since visiting with other politicians in the storm’s immediate aftermath on July 20.

The Republican incumbent for the First Congressional District seat was first elected in 2014 and was re-elected in 2016. He will face Democratic challenger state Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, in the November general election.

Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com