In a quiet, windowless basement room of the Washington County courthouse in Blair, just north of Omaha, about a half dozen employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, are sitting behind laptop computers, ready to help people affected by this year's Missouri River flood.
Fred Knapp, NET News
FEMA's George Friedrich helps Sandy Mullen at the Blair Disaster Recovery Center as Denny Dunbar works next to him.
Fred Knapp, NET News
Governors meet on flooding in Omaha. Click on image for identifications.
About an hour after the center opened Tuesday afternoon, a FEMA spokesman said, about six people had come through.
One of them, Sandy Mullen, lives just north of Blair. She said everything was fine through Memorial Day.
"We had friends over, things were fine, and then we started hearing rumors about flood coming, and within three-four-five days we were unpacking the house. Moving everything out, and trying to get out," she said. "And then on the twelfth of June was when the water started coming over the road. And we're living in our camper, my husband's boss's camper, two dogs, two cats, my little girl and my husband and I, and we've been there ever since."
The Mullens are not alone. In its request for disaster assistance, the State of Nebraska estimated up to almost 500 homes were destroyed, damaged or affected by flooding along the Missouri. Agriculture officials estimate about 150 thousand acres in the state were flooded. But they add that that figure is probably low.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the dams and reservoirs that control the river's flow. Critics say the Corps should have lowered reservoir levels sooner in anticipation of the runoff from heavy snow and springtime rains. They suggest that could have reduced the need for the record amounts of water that were released from the dams this summer, releases that have just recently begun to slow down.
At a meeting of seven states in Omaha last week, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman summed up what those states' governors think should be job one for the Corps.
"Flood control must be the highest priority in the operation of the Missouri River," he declared.
Congress requires the Corps to balance eight different objectives, ranging from flood control to recreation. Brigadier General John McMahon, commander of the Corps Division that manages the Missouri, said the governors' recommendation is not a new idea.
"Flood control is our top priority," he said. "Now, could we have more flood control by virtue of creating more space in the reservoir system? Yes we could. But there's tradeoffs involved in that."
Illustrating those tradeoffs, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer skipped the meeting. Schweitzer complained the governors of states farther downstream were putting too much priority on flood control and navigation, and not enough on recreation and wildlife, important to Montana's tourism industry.
McMahon called his meeting with the other governors "very productive," and said by taking a long-term view, they can deal with the problems together.
Back in Blair, Sandy Mullen is focused on the short term. She's said she's already gotten some financial help from FEMA, but has questions about how it can be used. The money was for rental assistance. But since the family is living in the camper, she said, she doesn't know if that's a qualified expense.
"So I have to write a letter and send it in, and more waiting," she said, laughing.
FEMA spokesman Charlie Henderson said disaster recovery centers, like the one in Blair and another one farther north in Tekamah, are for people who need extra help like or to deal with someone face-to-face. He said most people can apply for help by telephone, at 1-800-621-3362, or online. Efforts are ramping up now since the official disaster declaration on Aug. 12.
In addition to housing costs, Henderson said, help may also available for other needs, such as medical, dental, or funeral expenses, essential furnishings, and substitute transportation, like a used car.
Those are grants. There are also low-interest loans available for homeowners, renters, and businesses from the Small Business Adminstration Henderson sais. If FEMA thinks people might qualify, they refer them to the SBA, which sends out a packet.
"Sometimes people get this packet and they say I can't afford a loan or I don't want a loan, I just want a grant,' and they throw the packet in the wastebasket. That's a mistake," he said.
People should fill out the packet and send it back. If the person is denied a loan, they'll automatically roll over to the "other needs assistance" program - the grant program. But if they throw that packet away, then they're excluded, he said.
Sandy Mullen said her family's looking for help in whatever form it comes, to recover from over six feet of floodwater in their basement, which she said will probably have to be replaced.
"Small business loans? We can probably do it," she said. "But if there's help out there, we'd really appreciate it. I think it could get done quicker. And our concern now is we don't even know if we can get back into it before winter."
Many other Nebraskans may also find out what help they need, and what's available, as the waters recede over the coming weeks. They have until about October 12 to apply for help from FEMA. FEMA assistance application