- Associated Press - Saturday, April 3, 2021

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - Cedar Rapids and Marion are pursuing federal assistance to help pay for millions of dollars worth of tree debris cleanup in waterways as recovery from last summer’s devastating derecho continues.

The two Linn County communities are navigating federal agencies’ policies for disaster recovery as they work to clear debris-filled waterways and wooded areas. Although federal help is not guaranteed, local and federal officials say they are in communication and are confident about reimbursements.

Given its projects’ size and scope, Marion has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as crews continue to clean up three waterways within the community. The estimated $15 million project is in progress as contractor Southern Disaster Recovery removes tree branches from Dry, Indian and Wanatee creeks.

Marion has been working with disaster recovery consulting firm Tidal Basin to help navigate through the various projects, City Manager Lon Pluckhahn told The Gazette.

Cedar Rapids, on the other hand, has applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Service - an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - for assistance with its debris removal through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. It provides assistance for debris removal from stream channels, road culverts and bridges, addressing erosion-related watershed impairments.

“The city of Cedar Rapids has identified damage related to debris removal in waterways for both NRCS-EWP and FEMA,” city Finance Director Casey Drew said in a statement. “The next step will be for the federal agencies to determine which program will pay for the cost of waterway debris removal.”

If funding is awarded through the ag department’s NRCS program, the city’s cost share is 25 percent. Funds for the local share will come from reserves in sanitary sewer operations and stormwater utility operations programs, according to City Council documents.

Cedar Rapids has applied for $3.08 million in assistance through the NRCS to cover 13 sites out of 23 identified in damage assessments, with the city’s cost share coming to $769,841.25 for those projects. Crews or contractors will be clearing debris, removing fallen trees and seeding areas where trees were removed.

Sewer Operations Manager Justin Koller said all the waterway projects are estimated to cost $6.45 million, with an approximate $2 million match required for Cedar Rapids.

These sites are eligible for federal help because of the risk of flooding or risk of damage to other city infrastructure, Sewer Utility Program Manager Dave Wallace said.

Cedar Rapids officials point to FEMA policy stating that the city’s debris-filled waterways are under NRCS authority. Debris removal projects are ineligible under FEMA from federally maintained navigable waterways; flood control works under the authority of NRCS, which are those that are part of the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program; agricultural land; and unimproved land, including heavily wooded areas.

Some “unimproved” areas identified as project cleanup sites include land around Seminole Valley, Morgan Creek and Cherokee Parks, according to locations the city provided. All but one of the 13 projects listed are west of Interstate 380 and do not include the Cedar River itself.

Because Cedar Rapids has been working with NRCS, the identified waterway projects are not eligible for FEMA funding, according to the FEMA policy guide, even in the case that NRCS does not have sufficient funding or does not provide assistance.

Other projects for which Cedar Rapids has not gone through NRCS could still be eligible for FEMA funding, depending on the determination the agency reaches.

FEMA also does not typically provide funding for costs associated with debris removal activities conducted after 180 days from the start of the incident period, according to the policy guide. The derecho was Aug. 10, 2020 - over seven months ago.

Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hock said the city is making cleanup for improved areas, such as city parks and rights of way, a higher priority before moving into timber areas. The timeline on doing work in those areas and the scope of work needed is unclear because work has not wrapped up on improved areas, Hock said.

“Some places, we can just come back in and plant some seedlings in a year so that they grow up, and we’ll be able to get some native (species) back in and have a healthier timber area,” Hock said.

Amal Eltahir, assistant to the city manager in Marion, said the city has been relying on the FEMA policy guide in terms of its projects’ eligibility and is expecting 75 percent reimbursement from FEMA and 10 percent from the state.

Marion officials point to the part of the FEMA policy guide that states debris removal from waterways that is necessary to eliminate the immediate threat to life, public health and safety or improved property is eligible for help.

Debris removal also is eligible if the debris could cause damage to structures, is causing or could cause flooding to improved property in the event of a five-year flood, the policy states.

To solve the gap between paying for the projects and receiving potential reimbursements, Marion is taking out a short-term, $20 million loan to help pay for recovery costs.

Budget manager Zachary Wolfe previously told The Gazette that taking out a loan gives the city more flexibility than bond financing. If reimbursements come quickly, the loan is expected to cost the city about $200,000. If the opposite happens, the cost will be closer to $400,000, Wolfe said.

In the case that Marion does not receive the FEMA reimbursement it is expecting, Eltahir said it would not impact the current financing plans.

“However, the city will have to think about refunding the short-term loan with a longer term one a couple of years from now,” Eltahir said.

FEMA officials told The Gazette that though funding is not guaranteed, the agency is working closely with Marion on its waterway project as well as other projects with various local jurisdictions. But thorough eligibility reviews are being conducted, especially with projects valued at $1 million or more.

“No determinations have been made regarding eligibility for FEMA Public Assistance funding for waterway debris removal,” according to a statement FEMA provided to The Gazette. “FEMA and the city (Marion) are early in the project formulation stage.”

Projects need to be “closed out,” or finished, for jurisdictions to apply for FEMA reimbursements, and the process can take months.

Local jurisdictions such as cities and counties are considered sub-applicants under the state, so when projects are approved for reimbursement, FEMA obligates funding to the state, which then distributes the funds locally.

As of mid-March, FEMA’s Public Assistance program had obligated $18.9 million to the state for derecho disaster recovery projects that include debris removal, emergency protective measures and restoration of damaged infrastructure and facilities.

FEMA has obligated one of Marion’s 13 projects as of mid-March and has approved $9.9 million in reimbursement for debris removal, according to a FEMA official.

Though not in waterways, FEMA is working with Cedar Rapids on 23 other projects, two of which have been obligated, including a project related to buildings and equipment and a project involving roads and bridges for a little more than $200,000.

FEMA also provided over $11 million in individual assistance grants to about 3,080 households in 12 Iowa counties, with $7.7 million of that going to 2,177 Linn County households.

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