By Tim Leeds 

FEMA disaster officer: 'I want to pay you'


A federal official told local government officials on Monday that he's in Havre to help governments and groups navigate the process of apply for flood disaster aid.

"If it isn't done right, it puts your funding at peril, " Charles Baird of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told people at a kick-off meeting. "Translate: I can't pay you unless it's done right, and, what I want to make very clear here today is, I want to pay you. "

The Havre meeting was the second of six scheduled throughout the state to kick off the disaster assistance program for the 31 counties and four Indian reservations declared disaster areas by President Barack Obama June 17.

The main purpose of the meeting was to identify who was applying for assistance and connect them with FEMA, said Tim Thennis, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services public assistance officer, during the introductory briefing.

Representatives of governments and groups from around the region attended the meeting, including the local cooperatives that suffered damage to power and telephone infrastructure and assisted other governments during the flooding.

The governments represented during the meeting included Havre, Hingham, Chinook and Harlem; Hill, Blaine, Chouteau, Cascade, Glacier and Pondera counties; and the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's Indian reservations.

The governmental jurisdictions included in the declaration were for areas that were damaged due to flooding starting April 4 through the date of the declaration.

In the introductory briefing before the kick-off meeting, Tim Thennis said that, as the declaration is open-ended, additional local governments would be added to the disaster declaration as more flooding damage is assessed.

Another issue Baird addressed is the chance of FEMA running out of disaster funds with the widespread disaster declarations across the United States this year. He said he is not concerned that that will happen.

"I love answering this, " he said in response to the question from an official at the meeting.

Baird said the disaster relief fund now has in the neighborhood of $5 billion — much more than enough for the work needed in Montana.

If additional funding is needed, that will be up to Congress to appropriate — and it would be in the political interests of lawmakers from the numerous states requesting disaster assistance to make sure those states receive it, he said.

"I don't worry about it at all, " Baird said.

The common theme during the discussion of the issues and regulations governing federal disaster assistance was that the state and federal officials want to help the groups applying for aid do the job right and receive their assistance.

Baird said the people applying for assistance should not be afraid of the officials working on the disaster. They are there to help, he said.

The purpose of the meeting was to find out who needs help, "so we can get you started for us getting you listed for FEMA so we can figure out how to get you paid. That's the important thing, " he said.

Arnold Gentilezza of FEMA told the group about the procedures and requirements in applying for mitigation to reduce the chance that damage that happened during the disaster would happen again in future years.

"The program has been designed so that we don't have to keep coming back and repairing the same damage year after year after year, " he said.

The mitigation in the disaster-specific program can be proposed once a project worksheet for repairing disaster damage is prepared, he said, adding that FEMA can suggest mitigation projects but it is best if they are proposed locally.

"We encourage applicants to propose mitigation, because you know the area better than we do, " Gentilezza said.

Brent Giezentannar of FEMA said an area in which to be careful — although major problems usually don't arise — is in dealing with historic sites and federal regulations like the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

If the location of some item repaired is moved or enlarged, it needs to be checked to make sure no historic area is disturbed. The same is true of any action that could impact species or the environment or any other federal regulation — about 60 state and federal laws that have to be followed, he said.

"Our role is to help you keep your money and be aware of the environmental rules and laws we have to work under. "

The key is to contact him and his team as early as possible to find out if there are any issues. Giezentannar said. His team works with the FEMA assessment team checking to see if proposed projects are eligible for funding assistance.

"Our mutual goal is to make sure you get your money and you get to keep it, " he said.

He said the earlier projects are brought to his team's attention the better, so consultations with different agencies to make sure there are no problems can be done before the project is ready to start.

Baird said the different parts of the team will work with the local governments and groups to find ways to get the projects done.

"If we can figure out a way to pay for it, we're going to pay for it, " he said.


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