Lawmakers want feds to pay for flood damage

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Several state senators said Tuesday that they want Missouri to challenge the federal government before paying a standard portion of the damage costs from flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers that has torn up roads and other public infrastructure while washing out homes and farms.

The Missouri lawmakers contend the flooding is a result of management decisions made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal government should be responsible for paying the tab instead of passing 25 percent of the cost onto state and local governments as is typical in disasters.

But a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said responsibility for the flooding does not come into play when determining whether the federal government should pay a greater-than-usual share of disaster costs. Those decisions are based on a calculation of per capita costs for public assistance, and Missouri has not reached the dollar threshold to qualify for a lower share of the costs, said Josh deBerge, a spokesman at FEMA’s regional office in Kansas City.

At issue are two separate floods. In early May, the corps exploded an earthen levee in southeast Missouri to relieve some of the water pressure on levees protecting Cairo, Ill., which is on the opposite bank of the Mississippi River. As a result, about 130,000 acres of fertile Missouri farmland were swamped.

Some lawmakers also blame the corps for the ongoing flooding along the Missouri River, which has affected northwest Missouri as well as several other states. The lawmakers contend the corps could have eased the flooding threat — created by melting snow and heavier than normal rains in the upper Midwest and West — by releasing more water from upstream dams earlier in the spring.

During a meeting Tuesday of a special Senate disaster recovery committee, Republican state Sens. John Lamping and Jim Lembke — who are both from the St. Louis area — suggested the Missouri attorney general’s office should take legal action to challenge the typical 25 percent cost allotment for the flooding damage. Several other senators on the special committee also said they want to scrutinize and potentially challenge Missouri’s share of the disaster costs.

“I think the corps needs to be held to the fire,” said Sen. Kurt Schafer, R-Columbia, who also is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Added Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown: “Generally, if you break it, you buy it. And in a lot of these cases, the corps broke it.”

Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, said the office is reviewing its legal options related to the state’s share of disaster costs but declined to comment further.

Typically, the federal government pays many of the immediate disaster costs and then bills state and local governments for their share at a later time. Schafer said Missouri has not yet received many bills from the federal government.

The Mississippi River flooding falls under the same federal disaster declaration as the deadly tornado that struck Joplin in May. The Missouri River flooding is treated as a separate disaster for federal accounting purposes, deBerge said. To qualify for a 90 percent federal cost share, the federal government’s cost in each disaster would have to reach about $710 million for public assistance — a category that includes damages to things such as roads, water and sewer systems and government buildings, deBerge said.

DeBerge said FEMA notified Gov. Jay Nixon’s office on Aug. 1 that the state’s 25 percent cost-share would remain in place for the foreseeable future but that the agency would re-evaluate in 60 days whether to recommend that the federal government pay a larger portion of the costs.

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