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Federal aid slowly coming

City learns perseverance and patience required for FEMA reimbursements

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG The EF-3 tornado that tore through Marshalltown in 2018 took a path right through the city’s downtown. Marshalltown was awarded public assistance from FEMA.

From removing more than 500 trees to replacing mangled stop signs to repairing the Veterans Memorial Coliseum roof, the city of Marshalltown incurred millions of dollars in tornado-related expenses.

Insurance covered some but not all of those losses. The city is still working with insurance companies to finalize payments for damage.

“We have ongoing claims,” City Administrator Jessica Kinser said. “Also, some of the larger claims, like the Coliseum, will be claims where we get the final 40 percent once we start incurring costs for repairs.”

FEMA Reimbursement

No sooner had the tornado lifted off when state and local officials began working in concert to declare Marshall County a disaster area in hopes of making it eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid.

t-r file photo The Veterans Memorial Coliseum was the most heavily damaged of the city properties.

Once federal officials made the declaration, the city turned to the agency as a resource to assist in clean-up and recovery efforts which Mayor Joel Greer said could take up to five years. Specifically, Marshall County and Marshalltown were deemed eligible to receive FEMA funds. However, federal authorities turned down two requests from Gov. Kim Reynolds for individuals impacted by the tornado to receive assistance.

Kinser, City Finance Director Diana Steiner, Greer and other staff quickly became educated on FEMA procedures. And staff have aggressively pursued reimbursement once given permission from FEMA to apply.

However, staff learned the process to receive reimbursement requires attention to detail, documentation, perseverance and patience. An application of $4,971,895 was submitted earlier this year.

In the best case scenario for Marshalltown, FEMA will cover 75 percent of what the agency deems eligible expenses, Kinser said. The city wants to be reimbursed for expenses relating to debris removal, structure demolition and park fence repair.

“(City) staff work directly with our assigned person from Iowa Homeland Security Emergency Management (who before sending on to FEMA) first obligates the city’s claim by projects and categories,” Steiner said. “FEMA reviews (the claims) after IHSEMD submits the information. The city submitted documentation to justify the original amount we wanted obligated … FEMA can disallow expenses for a variety of reasons.”

What’s been reimbursed so far

Steiner said smaller projects are reimbursed at 75 percent once obligated expenses are approved, and once large projects are obligated the city will be able to take a draw up to 75 percent of the eligible expense.

“The city has been reimbursed for two items (effective July 12),” Steiner said recently. “Category G was for the damage of the Optimist Park fence. Total costs were $4,507 and FEMA reimbursed 75 percent or $3,380.25. Category F was for water main breaks. Total costs submitted were $7,583.85 and FEMA reimbursed 75 percent or $5,687.89. Since these were costs incurred by Marshalltown Water Works, the city wrote a check to them once funds were received. All other projects and categories have not been obligated by IHSEMD yet, so no (additional) FEMA funds have been received.”

The city is obligated to pay for all non-FEMA and non-state – 10 percent – reimbursed expenses.

About the process

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, said she’s seen Iowa values reflected in the stories of Marshalltown’s small businesses and first responders she’s met with.

“Helping your neighbor, stepping up for your community – it’s something we pride ourselves on. But Iowans can’t do it alone,” Finkenauer said. “While I’m still disappointed that Marshalltown families and small business owners were previously denied federal assistance for their own recoveries, I’m happy that the city has received funding for public assistance to remove debris, restore street signs and complete other critical projects. I will continue to be in touch with FEMA and monitor the situation to ensure that this community gets the timely and adequate resources it needs to rebuild.”

Marshall County Emergency Management Coordinator Kim Elder is a 14-year veteran of helping individuals, town and county staff and elected officials navigate the FEMA application and reimbursement process. She confirmed patience, perseverance and attention to detail are critical.

“We (Marshalltown and Marshall County officials) continue to meet with FEMA and state decision-makers bi-monthly,” Elder said. “There is ongoing work … tree removal, stump removal … but also reviewing detailed reports from before … information is still being compiled which seems unreal to people not in that line of work.

“There is a lot of detail and a lot of repetitiveness in the meetings to make sure we get everything correct and get applications for reimbursement turned in a timely manner. One year out is not that far.”

Elder said the 2018 tornado and previous flash flooding have been the two biggest challenges during her tenure.

The tornado inflicted the most damage and work is still ongoing, she said, but past flash-flooding incidents required a significant amount of her expertise to provide needed aid.

“With flooding … individuals were eligible for FEMA assistance, whereas tornado victims are not,” she said. “And with flash-flooding, county bridges were damaged. Those were ‘high dollar’ repairs too.”

Councilor-At-Large Bill Martin commended Kinser, Steiner and other staff for working tirelessly with FEMA and state officials, but he made it clear to them it is critical “the city gets reimbursed every cent it deserves.”

“I know the reimbursement process is slow, but we as a council have an obligation to our residents to closely monitor this issue,” Martin said.

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Contact Mike Donahey at 641-753-6611 or mdonahey@timesrepublican.com