Federal funds are starting to flow into Missoula County’s coffers to help cover the costs of last year’s flooding along the Clark Fork River, and officials are hoping to tap into another pot of money to help buy out Orchard Home property owners who can’t return to their residences due to the changed river channels.
On Tuesday, Adriane Beck, director of Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management, told county commissioners that she received $172,558 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This first draw of what Beck expects to be around $400,000 in federal aid is meant to cover county costs such as the incident command team mobilization, the public works response and short-term emergency repairs, including those to public infrastructure.
“We’re going back and forth with them justifying the costs and providing documentation,” Beck said. “This is one portion for one project. We should see the rest of the revenue in the next couple of months.”
Beck added that it’s not unusual for the reimbursement process to take 18 months. FEMA announced in November 2018 that approximately $1.5 million would be distributed among nine Montana counties after severe flooding damaged homes and public infrastructure in Missoula County and elsewhere.
A combination of a deep snowpack and heavy spring rains prompted the Clark Fork to crest at nearly 14 feet in May 2018 as it flowed through Missoula. That level, which was the second highest in 100 years, tipped over power poles, damaged houses and outbuildings, and even sent trailer homes and propane tanks floating downriver.
After the flooding, President Donald Trump signed a disaster declaration for the Montana counties.
“Just about everything we thought was eligible is eligible, so that’s been reinforced as we go through this process,” Beck said.
The county is working with other state, federal and local agencies to look at the long-term flood scenario involving the Clark Fork, and potential mitigation matters. Beck noted that Congress approved $240 million in mitigation funds last year, but it’s issued through a competitive process. That means Missoula County is competing with damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and destruction from recent wildfires in California.
Beck said the notice of funding is supposed to come out in late August, with a $4 million cap on single projects.
“With that amount, we will not be building any flood control devices, but we could look at some large-scale buyouts,” Beck said. “We are in those initial conversations with what that would look like.”
After the meeting, Beck said they were looking at the Orchard Homes area, where residents were displaced from about 65 homes during the height of the 2018 flooding.
“It’s so early in the process we don’t know who would be eligible and qualify for the buyout,” Beck said, adding that the grant also would require 25% local funding, which could include in-kind matches to the 75% in federal funding.
The 2018 event caused the Clark Fork River to move into historic channels, and damaged levees that previously held back floodwaters. The county has been working with the Army Corp of Engineers to repair scouring of a levee, but also lowered the flood stage from 10 feet to 7.5 feet on the U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge above Missoula, based on the impacts shown in residential areas at the lower levels.
Orchard Homes is now ground zero for flooding. Tom and Felicia Gill, who were displaced by the 2018 floods, haven’t been able to return home since then. Instead, they’re paying their mortgage as well as rent on a small apartment in Stevensville, where they live with their two young children.
Felicia Gill said it’s been a difficult year. Even with the lower 2019 water levels, the river still ran through their home. She said they thought of selling it as is, but wrestled with the moral dilemma of foisting the known problem onto someone else.
“It’s hard. We need to get out from underneath it, but not put someone possibly in the same situation as ourselves,” she said. “I kind of feel like waiting for the county to buy us out is like waiting for the tooth fairy to buy us out.
“But if we could get that grant, it would be a dream come true.”