Last year, Iowa lawmakers set aside $15 million for flood recovery projects. A state board awarded all of the money to affected communities in eastern and western Iowa. Now, dozens more flood recovery projects are on the table, waiting for the state legislature to put more money in.
Back in March, Dale Ronfeldt’s yard looked like a lake. But the Hornick resident was still a little cheerful. He joked with a photojournalist who asked if he had lakefront property.
“Yes I do. You want to buy some?” replied Ronfeldt, as local media laughed.
Flooding last spring from a tributary of the Missouri River left officials in Hornick wondering if they could prevent this from happening again.
That’s where a state flood recovery fund comes in. In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation moving $15 million from Fiscal Year 2019’s ending balance into a fund for flood recovery and mitigation projects. Communities in counties where the federal government was helping people with recovery could get money.
Iowa’s Flood Mitigation Board approved six projects: A berm, a drainage replacement, a levee and buyouts for three communities.
"Building the berm will protect us from a flood like we had in March," said Hornick Mayor Scott Mitchell after a September town hall meeting where he told residents that Hornick had been allotted money. The state board had divvied up the entire fund and Hornick would receive just over $2 million to build a berm. Mitchell was overjoyed.
"And you know what? I won't have to worry about in the middle of the night when it's raining. Four inches of rain up in Remsen, I won't have to worry about what the creek is going to do. I can stay in bed and sleep," Mitchell said.
Yet, four months after Hornick was awarded the money, it hasn’t received it. But Mitchell said that’s not a problem because the town won’t start its project for a couple of years.
In fact, most of the $15 million fund hasn’t been touched. Iowa's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Chief of Staff John Benson said the state agency has pushed a little more than $1.1 million of the fund out to communities. Iowa Homeland Security is tasked with making sure that the projects that were awarded funds get their money. Benson said the flood recovery fund acts as a reimbursement for communities.
"As they incur the expense, we want to reimburse them that expense as quickly as possible so it doesn't have an adverse impact to the city and/or the county budget," Benson said.
Benson said he expects reimbursement requests to pick up in the spring. So far, money that’s left the fund has mostly gone to Hamburg in southwest Iowa to pay for the dirt to build up a levee. Southwest Iowa communities received some money to pay for property appraisals – a step in the buyout process.
Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain said the fund has been a godsend. Flooding destroyed 73 homes in her city.
Hamburg didn't get all of the money it needs to elevate its Ditch 6 Levee to withstand future flooding, but Crain said they've applied for matching federal funds for that. And Hamburg has run into a roadblock. There is still water on both sides of the levee, so the city can’t build it up yet.
"You can’t build a levee when your equipment is going to get stuck," Crain said. "Second thing is we have frost. You can’t build a levee on dirt that is frozen."
Hamburg's work is on hold for now, and so are dozens of other flood mitigation projects. Iowa’s Flood Mitigation Board deferred three applications in September. Since then, another 30 project proposals have come in. Altogether they total more than $130 million.
According to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the requests range from approximately $38,000 for matching funds for debris and asphalt repair in Fremont County to a roughly $44 million property acquisition project for the City of Council Bluffs.
This week, Gov. Reynolds said she was requesting an additional $20 million for flood relief in the current fiscal year. But, that’s not a sure thing.
In an earlier interview, Rep. David Sieck, R-Glenwood, said the legislature will need to look at all of the pending projects and determine "how much of it's an immediate need and how much of it's a longer term need."
“And I think that then we could decide what amount of money that we would ask,” Sieck said. “Now, whether we get it or not, that depends on where we sit budget-wise, because there’s a lot of other things that need money.”
Sieck said last year's $15 million was a "shot in the dark." But now, lawmakers know there’s a bigger need.
Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management said it’s looking into federal funding to help those 33 pending projects. Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, wants state government to make flood recovery and mitigation a higher priority and help communities better prepare for future flooding. Hogg and other Senate Democrats wanted lawmakers last year to consider a $50 million flood recovery package.
“We don’t really have a choice about making these investments if we want our state to be able to recover from disasters, and also safeguard our people and our property from future disasters,” Hogg said.
If floodwaters return to Iowa this year, the state's Flood Mitigation Board could have its hands full with even more requests.