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FEMA mobilized in Cherokee, Sioux Rapids

Going door to door to assess damages

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is unlikely to make whole the hundreds of residents in Buena Vista and Cherokee counties who suffered flood-related damages. 

Officials in both counties applauded a presidential declaration that offered individual assistance to homeowners and renters who suffered flood-related damages in the last few weeks. Communities along the Little Sioux River suffered tens of millions in damages. 

A declaration from President Joe Biden mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Sioux Rapids and Cherokee over the weekend to assess damages to homes. An office is expected to be established in Sioux Rapids this week. 

Buena Vista County Emergency Manager Aimee Barritt said the county was grateful of the federal government’s resources.

But the help won’t bring the Valley of Beauty back to what it was. 

“Not even close really,” said Barritt when asked about whether FEMA’s resources would make flood-damaged Sioux Rapids resemble what it was before June 22. “You’re talking about replacing an electrical panel, but if you lost an entire house, FEMA’s not going to make up for that.”

Much of Sioux Rapids lies outside of the 100-year floodplain, which means many community members don’t have access to federally subsidized flood insurance, Barritt explained in an interview on Monday. A FEMA informational showed no data for the number of National Flood Insurance Program policies in Buena Vista County. Each surrounding county contained less than 300 policies in force as of 2021, the most recent year insurance data was available. The number of policies underwritten by the NFIP have been shrinking in Iowa since 2016. 

The Sioux Rapids city park, for example, has a one percent chance of flooding every year, which means it could be eligible. Almost all of downtown Sioux Rapids isn’t even in a 500-year flood zone, according to the Iowa Flood Maps, a collaborative between the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Flood Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Several blocks of First Street, which contain Sioux Lumber, Farm Nutrients and Snook’s Carpet and Furniture, have a one in 500 chance of a flood hazard, according to the flood maps. 

“You have to understand that Sioux Rapids crested five feet over the previous record,” Barritt said. “This was a flood that goes wide past the scope of insurance.”

Barritt declined to estimate the percentage of homeowners in Sioux Rapids who have flood insurance, but she said the number is “pretty low.” It’s the main avenue a homeowner recovers from such a disaster. The first question a FEMA representative is supposed to ask a homeowner in Sioux Rapids or Cherokee is whether they have flood insurance. 

Barritt estimated a maximum payout from FEMA to an uninsured resident at around $40,000. Tiana Suber, a media correspondent with FEMA, declined to confirm or deny Barritt’s estimate. Suber said the agency is seeking to help those who are uninsured or underinsured. 

“Especially in times like this, people are having a hard time with getting their insurance claims, but when you have the NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program), it does save you a little money,” Suber said. 

Suber also said that FEMA does not currently have a physical location to establish a disaster recovery center in Cherokee. 

THOSE WHO HAD flood insurance — mainly in Cherokee — aren’t expecting a windfall. 

The floods of 1993 that inundated much of the community like they did last month established a trend of repetitive losses that continued through the decades. Cherokee is a participating community in NFIP, which means residents purchase subsidized policies through FEMA. 

Mark and Marcia Casey already paid off a $48,000 mortgage on their house on Willow Street. When they lost everything from the Little Sioux River’s floodwaters last month, their insurance company guaranteed up to $51,000 in flood-related coverage. But the Caseys only paid to insure their house, not its contents. They balked at the expense. 

Casey said he pays $600 a year for his insurance, which means his policy is more expensive than 94% of NFIP policies, according to a review of FEMA data. And the policy limit only exceeds the mortgage debt by $3,000. Even with insurance, the Caseys will be left with nothing. 

“I’d be broke,” Casey said of the event he collects up to his policy limit. 

Like other Cherokee residents, Mark Casey didn’t expect the water to reach his front door, let alone fill his basement and rise nine feet on his main floor. 

“The house is paid for but worthless,” Casey said. 

Though he believes it can be rebuilt, Casey said he will likely try to sell or rent out the property. “I don’t know if anybody wants to live down here,” he said. “I would. If I wasn’t buried, I’d move right back in.”

The Caseys have been staying at a downtown apartment and plan to move to a different house on East Spruce Street. 

Casey estimated that he and his wife lost $30,000 in personal belongings. He hopes that FEMA will cover at least a percentage of that loss. 

Among hundreds of damaged and destroyed personal belongings were Casey’s guitar and sheet music. He said he writes his own songs. The Caseys only managed to salvage a duffel bag with socks and underwear. 

“We could not get anything out,” he said. “We had no time.”

FEMA representatives visited the Caseys’ Willow Street home on Monday. The Caseys and a group of local volunteers had already gutted and cleaned the entire property. Casey said the representatives documented the damages and directed him to their command center in Spencer. There, Casey will need to provide proof of loss with his flood insurer, The Hartford, which he said he does not yet have. 

Casey said FEMA representatives told him that FEMA would cover whatever his insurance didn’t, but he wasn’t sure whether there was a cap on how much money he could receive. 

FEMA IS IN the process of inspecting damaged properties and asking homeowners to register their properties online. Cherokee County Emergency Manager Justin Pritts said the agency remained “fairly tight-lipped about what assistance is available.” 

FEMA representatives indicated to Pritts that they have many new aid programs available, but eligibility varies case by case. 

In order to become eligible for FEMA assistance, homeowners need to register with FEMA, either online at DisasterAssistance.gov or over the phone. FEMA then needs to inspect the property damages and review the aid application. 

“If you have applied in the past and been denied, or haven’t had good luck, they encourage people to apply again, because there’s several different packages out there,” Pritts said. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Cherokee, Sioux Rapids

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