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Wisconsin tornado impacts small municipalities with uninsured cleanup costs

FEMA said the mounting costs of Katrina had nothing to do with Wisconsin being shut out. The tornado damage, the agency said, "was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments."

Government officials in the Town of Dunn disagree. The community of 5,300 is facing a cleanup bill of $273,000. The Town of Pleasant Springs rang up cleanup costs of $945,000, more than what the total yearly budget is for the town

Tornado clean-up costs

Village of Viola- $1.3 million

Town of Pleasant Springs - $945,000

Town of Dunn- $273,000

The disaster, however, showed what these municipalities are made of as they pulled together and helped their neighbors, according to Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.  Many of the small towns hit by the tornado have cooperative agreements with neighboring communities to assist one another when crises occur.  These cooperative agreements allowed neighboring towns’ staff to assist those devastated by the tornado with cleanup while only billing them for overtime pay.

Because small towns like Dunn and Pleasant Springs have liability coverage that doesn’t provide coverage for cleanup of roads and highways these cooperative agreements saved thousands of dollars.  The towns do not carry insurance coverage for their road systems like they do for government buildings.  If they cannot get other aid, such as Small Business Administration disaster funding, communities will have to borrow. But if they're nearing their debt limits, that's another problem.


“Viola suffered a $1.3

million uninsured

infrastructure loss including damaged streets, downed light poles, etc.  If not for a $600,000 grant from the state of Wisconsin given after FEMA’s denial, the village would be in dire straits.”

Another small town, Viola, located about 90 miles northwest of the Stoughton area was hit by an F3 tornado on the same day.  Carol Oliver, Viola’s Emergency Management Coordinator stated, “Viola suffered a $1.3 million uninsured infrastructure loss including damaged streets, downed light poles, etc.  If not for a $600,000 grant from the state of Wisconsin given after FEMA’s denial, the village would be in dire straits.” 

As it is, the future of Viola now includes serious reductions in village services.  Without the state grant, 10,000 volunteer hours aiding in the cleanup, and creative fiscal management there would be little future or community to call home. 

Borrowing necessary funds is no longer a viable option for these communities either because of a new state law passed which limits property tax increases to 2% annually.  Therefore, borrowing funds to pay for cleanup and adding the cost on to the property tax is no longer an option for Dunn, Pleasant Springs, and Viola.

"I don't know that there's a lesson to be learned. I think those towns did what they had to do" in helping their neighboring communities, Stadelman said. "It may show that we can't rely on FEMA,” he added.

However, while the state is receiving federal disaster assistance for sheltering Katrina victims, the request to declare the towns of Pleasant Springs and Dunn federal disaster areas is still pending. Town of Dunn Chairman Ed Minihan said the Stoughton tornado had been overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina, but he's hopeful federal disaster funds will eventually be approved to help pay for $300,000 that the town had spent in cleanup.

Katrina overshadowed twister

Hurricane Katrina "is a catastrophe," said Minihan. "I don't begrudge them anything, but it certainly has taken the focus off here. There are a number of things to aid victims of the hurricane and not a whole lot for our folks. It's sort of forgotten."

Minihan, who has been town chairman since 1979, recalled that when a tornado hit Dunn in 1992, destroying 30 houses, it took longer than a month for the federal disaster area declaration.

This year, in the Town of Dunn, 17 homes were destroyed and 50 others were damaged. Damages to residential homes in Dunn are estimated at $5.5 million. Pleasant Springs was hit harder with 70 homes destroyed and approximately 70 more damaged.

Pleasant Springs Town Chairman Ken Schuck said by November many folks have finished the bulk of cleanup and contractors are rebuilding and repairing homes. He said 20 to 30 building permits had been issued so far in his community.

The mounting heaps of debris are a constant reminder for many officials of the surprising FEMA disaster relief denial.  Without insurance coverage for tornado cleanup, small communities will need to look beyond FEMA assistance for a new backup plan when disasters strike.

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