Wisconsin Seeks Federal Disaster Funds After Severe Winter

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Monetary relief could be on the way for municipalities across Wisconsin now that an application for federal disaster relief is in the works.

This winter, as temperatures routinely dipped below zero and frost lines moved to record depths, municipalities and water utilities across the state battled frozen pipes, increased overtime, unbilled water use and damaged infrastructure — all of which added up to millions of dollars of damage.

In response to concerns from local officials and some statewide organizations, the Wisconsin Department of Emergency Management is preparing an application for a federal disaster declaration to help communities cover those unexpected costs. Lori Getter, DEM crisis communications manager, says the process will take some time and was delayed by a late April storm in northern Wisconsin that prevented identifying some of the damage.

“This isn’t our normal type of disaster like a tornado or flood where you see the damage right away,” she says. “This has been going on for three or four months.”

Deep frost causes trouble
Throughout the winter, water crews responded to broken mains and frozen service laterals as frost reached unusual depths. It was Wisconsin’s second-coldest winter on record, according to the National Weather Service in Green Bay, which reported frost depths around 5 feet in Green Bay where it’s normally 3 feet. Other areas with less snow experienced frost lines at 6 or 7 feet with some areas extending even deeper. To prevent service laterals from freezing, many communities asked water customers to run a constant trickle of water. Additionally, broken mains were much more common. The city of Racine, which averages about 100 broken mains per year, reported 103 in the first three months of 2014.

Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley says the city of 12,000 along the shores of Lake Michigan documented $576,000 in extra expenses due to damage from the extreme cold. The city normally spends about $22,000 in the first quarter to repair water mains and service laterals. This year, it spent $177,000 in just three months.

City staff also thawed 174 residential and commercial service laterals compared to one or two in a normal year, and repaired 15 water main breaks — about twice the usual number.

Application in process
Getter says the state must analyze which costs are eligible under a disaster declaration along with which damages are covered by insurance. Insurance-eligible expenses wouldn’t be covered by disaster assistance funds.

“We’re looking at the paperwork that has been submitted, and hopefully we’ll have more solid information in the next couple of weeks,” she says.

The information will then be sent to Governor Scott Walker who will decide whether to seek federal disaster assistance. If so, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit the state for a preliminary damage assessment.

“They would go to all those communities they deem potentially eligible and review the damages,” explains Getter.

That process could take about two weeks, and the information would go back to the governor for a federal disaster declaration application. Disaster assistance would only cover local units of government and would not provide full funding.

“There would be 87.5 percent reimbursement,” says Getter. “FEMA would provide 75 percent of the eligible costs, and Wisconsin would provide 12.5 percent.”

The rest would come from local communities.

More to come
In Two Rivers, Buckley expects the city will need another $57,000 this spring and summer to repair concrete streets that were dug up over the winter and about $51,000 for additional repair work to the water system. Included in the losses is $160,000 from 23 million gallons of unbillable water, much of which came from 420 customers who were urged to run a continuous trickle of water for about two months to prevent service line freezing. Those customers will receive a billing credit. Their sewer bills, which are based on water use, will also be reduced for another loss of about $33,000.

Broken water mains also contributed to expenses, including one was that one not obvious to anyone.

“The daily use at our water plant, normally about 900,000 gpd in winter, was running around 1.5 mgd,” says Buckley. “We knew some of that was from the customers that we had asked to run a trickle of water to prevent freeze-ups.”

But that didn’t account for the large increase in flow. There weren’t any obvious leaks in the city — no water bubbling up from streets or backing up into people’s home — so crews started checking river crossings thinking the water was leaking into a river. A prime suspect was a 14-inch water main under the East Twin River.

“When we closed the valves on that river crossing, daily usage at the water plant immediately dropped by 300,000 gpd,” says Buckley.

The main was sheared off, apparently due to the ground near the shore shifting because of deep frost. Buckley expects repairs of that line to run around $150,000.

Getter adds that the state doesn’t want to get anyone’s hopes too high.

“This is a very unique disaster declaration process. The last time this was done was in Michigan in the 1990s and many of the regulations and requirements have changed over the years.”

Getter advices communities to work with their local emergency government offices to report any damages that have not yet been reported or if they have any questions about the process.


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