Iowans Take Out the Trash

DES MOINES, Iowa, October 30, 2008 (ENS) - Since record flooding, storms and tornadoes struck Iowa this spring and summer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated more than $16.5 million to the state for debris removal, federal and state recovery officials say, but getting Iowa cleaned up is taking more than money.

"The people of Iowa have demonstrated incredible initiative in dealing with disaster debris," said FEMA Coordinating Officer Bill Vogel. "They have shown a real can-do attitude that has resulted in safer communities and quicker recovery due to the removal of dangerous and disruptive debris."

Roughly 415,000 cubic yards of debris already have been removed - an amount FEMA compares to more than nine million bushels of corn. An estimated 112,000 cubic yards of debris remain to be collected and many buildings are still wet and damaged as demolitions begin in Cedar Rapids, one of the cities hardest hit by the floods.

On Saturday, a group of University of Iowa law students will help clean up flood damage in Cedar Rapids, following up on the work of 70 other law students earlier this fall.

"I was really amazed because it was the first time I had seen the devastation done to Cedar Rapids," said law student Brian Shust. "I think the thing that sticks out most is seeing toy stuffed animals, dirty and torn, just littered about houses and streets. That is an image that will stay with me as I pray for those people. I am glad that I got the chance to make a small difference in Cedar Rapids."

Iowa law students have made three previous trips to the city, where they mucked out and gutted buildings damaged by the record floods and helped clean a playground.

Students went door-to-door leaving fliers with information about Iowa Legal Aid and how flood victims can protect their legal rights.

"The students worked their hearts out," said Brian Farrell, director of the law school's Academic Achievement Program, who accompanied one group. "Many students were shocked at the damage."

Law student Atanna Essama saw flood-damage in Iowa City and Coralville, but there was no comparison to what his group saw in Cedar Rapids.

"When we pulled into Cedar Rapids, the first thing to register was just how empty it was," Essama said. "Then, as we drove by entire blocks of houses that had yet to even be gutted, what we observed was home after home devastated by the flooding. It was at that time that the gravity of what had transpired this past summer hit most of the volunteers, or at least those for whom this was their first trip to Cedar Rapids since the floods."

The cleanup trips are part by the College of Law's Citizen Lawyer Program, a public engagement project that helps law students connect with agencies across the state that provide legal services to Iowans and practical working experience for law students.

Anticipating that Iowans would face catastrophic amounts of debris, FEMA assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has debris management expertise, to solicit and manage Iowa debris contractors.

But while the Corps removed debris and hazardous waste, local municipalities proved capable of managing the contractors, identifying disposal services, signing contracts and overseeing the removal of debris placed in public rights-of-way.

FEMA and the state created the Debris Removal Task Force and staffed it with federal and state debris experts who assisted local governments assess the scale and scope of work of projects. They helped to write comprehensive project estimates to reimburse communities for eligible debris disposal expenses.

Debris removal funds are granted by FEMA's Public Assistance program and administered by the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division.

FEMA pays 90 percent of a project's cost and the state pays the remaining 10 percent to reimburse applicants, such as local and county governments, for eligible debris removal costs.

Communities focused on getting debris removed did not always track the amount of administrative time or volunteer work used to pick up disaster trash.

FEMA and the state want to capture these contributions to make sure applicants get credit for volunteer work. Credits for volunteer work can save the state money by reducing the state's 10 percent cost share.

"FEMA's job is to make sure applicants get every dollar for which they are eligible," said FEMA Public Assistance Officer Chuck Chaffins. "Cities and volunteers did great work in clearing debris. FEMA and the state want to make sure the costs of all eligible work are included so that applicants can be fully reimbursed."

Oxford Junction is one Iowa community that has benefited from the volunteer work of its residents.

After the storms and flooding, Oxford Junction looked like a giant sandbox. A local tributary overflowed its banks, washing out a road and bridge and burying private property and public roads and sidewalks under several feet of river sand.

Within days, volunteers had hauled the sand and other storm debris to the city's right-of way for pick-up. The city quickly hired a contractor to haul it from the right-of-way to the local disposal site, reducing the threat to public health and safety.

{Photo: Norma and Wayne McVey of Palo, Iowa are helped by friends to pile up debris from the floods that damaged their home and every building in this small town northwest of Cedar Rapids. (Photo by Greg Henshall courtesy FEMA)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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