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Walz comes to Benson seeking input on storm damages

Lead Summary

By Reed Anfinson
As farmers, communities and homeowners continue to assess the damage caused by the severe thunderstorm that struck May 12, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz came to western Minnesota to get input on how the state could help.
He met with county and city officials representing Stevens, Swift, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone counties in Benson last Wednesday afternoon to hear their stories of the challenges they faced and the help they would need to recover.
Also with the governor at last week’s meeting was Commissioner of Minnesota Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Joe Kelly and Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen.
“These are the true professionals,” Gov. Walz said of the county emergency management people meeting at the Benson Golf Club. “We understand that Minnesota does this as well as anyone. They know what they are doing. They know how to do it from the triage immediately afterwards to these assessments in an effort to make folks as whole as possible.”
Walz told the group that he and his staff wanted to hear firsthand what the impact of the storm was on the area. They also wanted to see if there were ways they could coordinate state and federal governments to help the local efforts.
“It has been a tough spring from the avian flu to the flooding to the cornerstone of our economy in agriculture that we really need to focus on,” Walz said. “The good news is that I think the State of Minnesota is in a good position to be able to assist on some of those things.”
Walz told the group that through executive orders he would be trying to safely ease some of the restrictions that could delay planting efforts once farmers could get into their fields.
Walz then turned to those at the table to ask for input.
“What is everyone supposed to be doing at this point?” Benson Mayor Terri Collins, who hosted the meeting, asked. Collins had been notified just the day before that the governor was coming to Benson. “Are we supposed to be keeping a record of everything and getting it to our emergency manager? Are we supposed to be talking to our insurance agents?”
It is a confusing time, Kelly told the group. “There are agriculture issues, there are public infrastructure issues, we’ve got private property issues, and debris spread all over half the state,” he said. “The best thing folks to do is report all their damages. Don’t worry if it is private property, industry, public infrastructure, insured not insured, we will sort that all that out.”
He also recommended people report damages to their insurance agent. Take a picture of the damage to capture it, Kelly added.
Businesses and individuals have to keep track of the time the time they spend and the expenses they incur in cleaning up their properties, Swift County Emergency Management Director Bill McGeary said. If they pile up all the debris, they should take a photo. 
In communities where there is a common site for the disposal of construction debris and another one for trees, FEMA will measure those piles, he said. 
Hannah Sanders, who farms near with her husband Luke Kerkhoven, said the first thing they did on their farm was call their insurance agent. “I had no idea we should be reporting it to the county as well,” she said. 
There were two farm equipment buildings that were badly damaged on their property. They will also replacing the shingles on the roof of their home, she said. They lost trees.
On farms, damages should also be reported to the local Farm Service Agency (FSA) because they can also document losses, Ag Commissioner Petersen said. “Not that farmers need another loan, but that is basically what it can unlock,” he said.
A letter was being prepared to send to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) about the state’s farm losses to provide access to very low interest loans as well as zero-interest loans available through the state, he said.
Also, once the on-farm losses are reported to the FSA, it does put the county in line for assistance through a federal disaster declaration, if one is approved, Petersen said.
Dealing with the stress
There are also concerns about mental health issues and what is going to happen after this, Donna Greiner, emergency manager for Stevens and Big Stone counties, told the governor.
The stress on farmers has just been compounded by the storm damage because they have been waiting in the fields and now they are dealing with heavy damage to their facilities, Petersen said. 
There are mental health counselors with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Walz said. The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline phone number is 833-600-2670 and is staffed 24 hours a day, Petersen said. A person can also text FARMSTRESS to 898211, or email to get help.
Petersen said that he has had farmers tell him they had damage to buildings on their farms but what they are really worried about is the planting situation. 
“I don’t care about my sheds,” Luke Sanders said, highlighting Petersen’s point. “I just want to get my crops in. I’ve got my corn contracted for this fall and if we don’t have that crop, how am I going to sell the corn - so it is like we are buying expensive corn to fill the contracts.”
There is a farmer in Stevens County who lost five grain bins and now where is he going to store that crop? Greiner said.
The state Department of Agriculture has 10 farm advocates in the department who can help farmers with financial problems or other issues, like not having bins. They can go to the bank, the mediator, and help the farmer buy time, Petersen said. One of those advocates is based in Montevideo and will go to work for a farmer right away at no charge, he said.
“It gives the farmer a chance to breathe a little bit and figure out his finances,” Petersen said.
“It is a show of strength to seek that help,” Walz added.
Walz pointed out that with the supply chain challenges, shortages of materials, and trying to find people to do the work, there could be a big backlog that delays when work to repair and replace structures that were damaged gets done.
“That is what I am worried about,” Luke Sanders said. “Getting it done before winter would be nice.”
Swift County Sheriff John Holtz added that getting work done is going to be a challenge in the area because many of the contractors are already busy with work they had scheduled for the spring and summer.
While the state’s record low unemployment of 2.2 percent usually would be thought of a good thing, it is not at this time, Walz said. It is another factor adding to the stress of those trying to recover from the storm.
“There is a real sense of urgency if you don’t have a roof over your head and you are not able to do your livelihood,” Walz said. “It’s not about patience and wait a few days. It is about what am I going to do right now and how are the bills going to be paid next month.”
Important to document
To ensure that farmers, homeowners, business owners and local units of governments get all the state and federal help possible, it is critical that damages and the work that goes into cleanup efforts is documented.
“It is important that for us to capture all of this,” Walz said. “There are thresholds for federal disaster declarations through FEMA.” All the losses have to be captured, he said, from trees to culverts to powerlines to buildings.
“Clean it up,” Kelly said of the storm damage that was done in the area. “Keep track of everything you do. We don’t want you to stop. We don’t want farmers to stop getting ready for planting when it dries out.”
Walz asked McGeary if he had any idea how many buildings in the county had been damaged by the storm. There were hundreds of structures damaged, over hundreds, he replied. 
In Lac qui Parle County over 450 homes were damaged with three homes destroyed. There were commercial building damages and power lines down. 
In Stevens County, people in four townships were still without power last Wednesday morning, Greiner said. The electric coops continue to work to restore power to those areas, she said.
In parts of Lac qui Parle County the power was out for three days. In Swift County, there were places that just got power Tuesday evening, five days after the storm. 
“Are we accounting for these people who don’t have power?” Walz asked.
“We are in Stevens and Big Stone counties,” Greiner told the governor. She also said the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been active in her counties distributing food and water.
At Benson Public Schools, about 50 trees were uprooted or damaged. The football field and track press box was knocked over causing an estimated $200,000 damage, Supt. Dennis Laumeyer said. He estimated total damages to school property could be as high as $300,000.
For public facilities that have damage and have insurance, the deductible portion of the expenses can be reimbursed, Kelly said.
FEMA is being asked to come and do preliminary damage assessment in 49 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and five tribal nations, Petersen said. He said the process will start in the Red River Valley and then work its way down to western Minnesota in about three weeks.
He said that the state would be working with FEMA to try get a grace period when it comes time for briefings on the application process for relief, so they are not scheduled when farmers and township officials have to be in the fields planting.
Walz asked those at the table how the warning system worked as the storm approached.
They agreed it was adequate but not everyone was expecting it to hit so fast, McGeary said.
“It was fast moving, that is what we didn’t expect,” he said. When there is a notice of a front on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, people think they have several hours. “We didn’t. We had an hour,” he said.
“We had a lot happen all at once,” Collins told Walz. “We had a fire at our major manufacturing plant, so our fire department was gone. We had fatal motorcycle accident, so we had law enforcement involved. And, we had a massive storm coming in.” Collins and Council Member Jack Evenson were driving around identifying areas with powerlines down the city. “It was all hands on deck,” she said.
The state can help
While getting another loan is not always a good thing, Walz acknowledge, the State of Minnesota has the capacity to be a bridge to help people out in an emergency.
“Your job is to do everything you can to put your lives, your businesses, and your communities back together, and our job it to get you all the disaster assistance that you are eligible for,” Kelly said. “But don’t wait for that. Do what is right. We will then help you sort through what is eligible and help you get the applications in.”
The Small Business Administration can also provide funding to help people make repairs. There is also business interruption help if the storm and flooding leads to a loss of business income.
Benson City Manager Glen Pederson told Walz that it wasn’t just the storm that the city was dealing with. The day before, a heavy rainfall had overwhelmed the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Then you put a wind event on top of it,” he said.
There were waves of storms starting May 8 that brought heavy rains, large hail, and destructive winds to the area. The Benson area saw nearly 7 inches of rain in a single week. 
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