Lawmakers in Washington got a ground-level assessment Tuesday on the flooding in Northwest Missouri and the distance that exists between bureaucracy and real-world needs.
Rhonda Wiley, emergency management director for Atchison County, Missouri, testified before a U.S. House subcommittee that the “arbitrary date” federal officials applied to the flood continues to hinder recovery efforts.
“We are still experiencing floodwaters in some areas through Northwest Missouri, and it’s impossible to put an ending date on a disaster that has not ended,” she said.
Wiley joined six other witnesses at a hearing of a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee focused on federal disaster recovery efforts.
North Missouri Congressman Sam Graves, the top Republican on the overall committee, had questions about the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the flooding. Particularly, he said the split disaster declaration, with a gap between April 16 and April 29, had complicated recovery.
“It’s completely bizarre,” he said. “If you’re in that two-week period, then you’re in trouble.”
Because of this gap, a curious situation arose with the federal government asking for reimbursement from some individuals getting assistance.
“We have people who have applied for assistance, have received it, and then somebody has come back around and said you’re going to have to give that back,” Graves, an Atchison County native, said.
Jeffrey Byard, a FEMA associate administrator and a witness at the hearing, said he would check into the agency trying to recoup money.
“When the governor requests a declaration, it’s there for a specific weather event,” Byard said of the separate federal orders, but adding on the continuous high water, “If a citizen’s flooded, they’re flooded.”
Wiley pointed out that the first water rescues in Northwest Missouri took place on March 16, and the floodwaters remain. She agreed with the congressman that the calendar gap has created needless obstacles.
“Putting arbitrary dates on a long-term flood actually jeopardizes a community’s recovery from the disaster,” she said.
The emergency manager, who is also the 911 director and floodplain administrator for Atchison County, said she believed federal money on infrastructure gets wasted in flood disasters because of shortsighted relief efforts.
For example, Wiley explained that U.S. highways, like 136 and 159 in the flooded areas, have been repeatedly damaged, in 1993, in 2011 and again this year.
“This is a continuous cycle of destruction, repair, destruction, repair,” she said. “Why are we not leveraging mitigation programs to rebuild these roads with proper underflow and elevations that will prevent repetitive damage?”
Wiley also suggested that the FEMA field staff needs to be empowered to help local populations find solutions to problems and to help implement them.
“Simply placing a fact sheet on a website does not cut it,” the witness said. “If we do not change how we respond to disasters such as long-term flooding, we will continue to watch taxpayer dollars wash away.”
Despite the ongoing struggle to recover, a positive perspective looms over all the efforts, Wiley added.
“Our biggest win is that nobody has died from this horrific flood,” she said.