Public hearings held, giving many flood victims a glimpse of hope, sigh of relief
by Mikel Holt
Many of the 70-plus July 22 flood victims left the Quality of Life Center at Christ the King Church Monday night uttering a silent prayer; hoping God will convince federal FEMA officials to reverse a decision not to assist residential home owners for damages incurred in that tsunami type storm.
While much of the discussion at the public hearing focused on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the catastrophic rainstorm, the underlying concern of many was whether city, county, state or federal officials would provide financial assistance to victims.
Last week, FEMA announced it would provide funds to local government, but not to the over 3,000 victims of the flood, many of whom lost an estimated $50 million in property and personal belongings.
That decision was akin to putting salt in an open wound, and prompted heated exchanges between citizens and elected officials at two earlier public hearings.
But there was a sigh of relief uttered at a meeting hosted by Alderman Ashanti Hamilton at Parklawn Assembly of God Church last week when he announced a plan to appeal the FEMA decision, and a back up plan in the event that the appeal was denied. His alternative calls for the city to use either community block grant or contingency funds to help the victims.
Hamilton also proposes allowing homeless victims of the flood access to foreclosed homes owned by the city. Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds also announced during the meeting that the district would provide food for students who were victims of the flood, along with shelter.
During Monday’s meeting, MMSD spokesperson Steve Jacquart revealed that city officials hoped to send off hundreds of surveys this week, which he believes will strengthen the city’s appeal of the FEMA decision.
One of the reasons FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reportedly rejected aid to residents centered around a policy that places higher priority on damage done to first floors (living quarters) than basements.
In the case of Milwaukee, most the damage was restricted to basements.
As part of the appeal, city officials are collecting statements from residents who say their basements are used for living accommodations, including sleeping quarters.
Jacquart also revealed a back up plan to petition congress for funding in the event FEMA again rejects Milwaukee’s application.
In answer to a question about storm damage to low and fixed income residents’ homes, Jacquart announced MMSD has set aside $100,000 for severe cases involving the elderly and infirmed.
Earlier in the day, MMSD commissioners voted to approve five contracts with a firm that will inspect up to 6,000 private laterals for leaks and other damage. Commissioners also discussed a $150 million, 25-year project to repair the laterals.
The MMSD owns about 300 miles of laterals, while the city and homeowners own in excess of 6,000 miles.
The proposed $150 million initiative would be the most expensive initiative of its kind, but could resolve many of the problems that contributed to the flooding.
The two-hour public meeting Monday was one of the most comprehensive to date. Along with MMSD, representatives from the city Department of Public Works, Health Department, elected officials and private contractors were among the panel of experts addressing the questions of residents.
Robert Brooks, of the Department of Public Works, provided a slide presentation that clearly detailed the roles government and residential factors that contributed to the flood.
Even with all systems functioning normally, he noted, “no system can withstand 8-9 inches of rain water in such a short period of time (as was the case with the July 22 rain storm).”
State Rep. Barbara Toles detailed her odyssey when the home occupied by her sister and father was barricaded by water. “I felt hopeless, because I couldn’t get to them,” she said. “My sister said she was in a Katrina (type situation); she was literally trapped in her house.
”She saved our family pictures, which may not seem important, but it was to us. You can replace every else, but the pictures were priceless.”
Toles’ primary message to the audience was that elected officials, at every level, are working cooperatively to “get you aid. We’re working at every level of government,” she said.
Donna Howe, a spokesperson for the City Health Department, discussed the health issues related to mold build up in flooded homes. She also provided clean up tips, offering that mold poses a health risk if not properly removed.
Michael Harper concurred. The owner of Urban Clean Energy Ventures, he went into detail on methods homeowners can use to avoid future flooding.
As has been the case at other public hearings, many of the residents provided the panel with heart wrenching tales. One common theme centered on why they have been denied financial assistance.
Several people suggested a lawsuit was the only viable option for redress. One senior said his home has been flooded six times in the last decade.
He rhetorically asked why residents in Chicago didn’t have as much flood damage, yet are receiving FEMA aid.
A woman said the flood damage has created a health crisis, and should be addressed as one. She said she knew of many people who have been hospitalized for respiratory problems.