Reynolds, FEMA's Criswell promise relief for Cherokee

When the assistance comes, no one knows…


The State of Iowa and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have promised the full forces of state and federal governments to assist over 2,000 homeowners who were affected by historic flooding in the last week.

But assistance remains far away.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said direct assistance will soon be available to Cherokee residents who were affected by the flooding. Reynolds, R-Osceola, thanked the Biden Administration for recognizing “the scope of the devastation we’re seeing in Northwest Iowa” and its prompt response, the third Presidential Disaster Declaration in as many months for Iowa. Reynolds said she was “honored” to have Criswell on a walking tour through flooded Cherokee on Thursday.

“I can’t express how appreciative I am for (FEMA’s) immediate response and just to be on the ground and understand what the need is,” Reynolds said after a walking tour through flooded homes and businesses in Cherokee. “The move is to help us into recovery, which is a ways down the road, but we’re going to be there before we know it.”

Criswell thanked Reynolds.

The two shared an embrace with Pete Snapp, a homeowner in the 200 block of East Elm Street whose basement foundation collapsed.

The two heard from Cherokee County Emergency Manager Justin Pritts, who told the administrators he slept in his office over the weekend. The floods overwhelmed his wildest expectations for what Cherokee could’ve experienced. The Little Sioux River cut off access to Cherokee via Hwy. 59 and Hwy. 3. Seven bridges were subsumed. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Hy-Vee Distribution struggled to deploy trucks to its network of stores.

“It’s been a record,” Pritts said of the experience since Saturday night.

Criswell said she was moved by the damage.

She said she met “amazing people” in Cherokee, some who have lived in their homes for over 50 years and lost everything. She saw bands of volunteers filling sandbags and clearing areas where the floodwaters receded. The FEMA administrator assured a gaggle of elected officials in Cherokee that resources are moving into Northwest Iowa. And that she would “support the governor and her needs to help (Cherokee) and all the communities that were affected by this flood and their work to recovery.”

Cherokee and a host of other communities along the Little Sioux are still divining what recovery looks like.

In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Pritts said he couldn’t speculate on what assistance from the federal agency would arrive from the federal agency because Cherokee wasn’t yet included in President Biden’s federal disaster declaration. As of Thursday night, Buena Vista and Cherokee counties have been approved for public assistance from FEMA – in other words, governments can apply for financial assistance.

For now, homeowners and business owners can contact their flood insurance agent.

For those who don’t have flood insurance, they’ll have to wait until Biden declares both counties eligible for individual assistance. Pritts was hopeful Cherokee would be added to a list of five counties that are already eligible. (Clay and Plymouth are already there.) Buena Vista County Emergency Manager Aimee Barritt said she was “working very hard to try to make that happen.”

To qualify, Barritt explained, a jurisdiction must demonstrate a minimum number residences suffered either major damages or destroyed entirely, per FEMA’s definition. Pritts believes that the damages Criswell witnessed on Thursday afternoon “went a long way” to deploying resources for homeowners. A federal disaster declaration with individual eligibility opens grants to disaster survivors who have “uninsured or underinsured necessary expenses or serious needs,” according to FEMA’s website. John Mills, an external affairs correspondent for FEMA, said the agency was working with Cherokee County on such a designation. Pritts encouraged those with flood damage to take pictures of high-water marks or other apparent flood damage in their homes.

Criswell noted that the disaster relief fund – which is scheduled to run a shortfall by August – won’t affect resources that are deployed to counties that are under presidential disaster declaration. The disaster relief fund pays for individual and public assistance claims, the claims that Cherokee and Buena Vista are seeking.

“It’s running short of money, as we are anticipating a shortfall come August, but we always put measures in place to ensure that incidents like this, we’re helping people,” Criswell told The Cherokee Chronicle Times after the tour. When asked if the shortfall could affect Cherokee, Criswell guaranteed it wouldn’t. “We will always have enough money to support the individual assistance, life safety and lifesaving operations. That’s our priority.”

Pritts declined to speculate how an individual assistance operation administered by FEMA would look like in Cherokee. He said hundreds of Cherokee residents have suffered damages, ranging from the minor to the catastrophic. In previous floods, localities in Cherokee have undertaken relocation programs underwritten by FEMA grants. Pritts said he expects buildings and houses to be taken down, but he said he didn’t know how a relocation effort would happen this time, or if it would.

“We’d have to get a lot together, and we’re not quite there yet,” Pritts said of federal financial assistance Cherokee residents could receive.

“It’s an incredibly tough situation to be in. People need and deserve answers, and I can’t give them out right now,” Pritts continued. “But at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than telling someone ‘hey this particular program is coming and for whatever reason it doesn’t.’ That’s how this stuff works at this point.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, Cherokee flood, FEMA, Justin Pritts


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