U.P. denied deep freeze funds by FEMA

MARQUETTE – Nine northern Michigan counties most affected by last winter’s deep freeze will not be eligible for federal disaster relief for damages, the Michigan State Police said in a press release Friday.

The Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of MSP said after reviewing documentation of millions of dollars in infrastructure damage caused by last winter’s long-lived, bitter cold temperatures, the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that $10.1 million of the reported damages were eligible for federal relief – more than $3 million short of the $13.7 million threshold needed for the consideration of a presidential disaster declaration.

“At the request of the MSP/EMHSD, (FEMA) conducted a vitual damage assessment to review the damages reported by local jurisdictions,” the release states. “Each impacted community was asked to submit disaster-releated costs and supporting documentation – including photos, invoices and payroll records – to demonstrate damages from the deep freeze incident.”

The six affected Upper Peninsula counties – Marquette, Chippewa, Delta, Gogebic, Luce and Mackinac – and Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties downstate have submitted documentation to the state totalling $19.3 million in winter costs. Marquette County alone reported $6.5 million in infrastructure damage. The state then forwarded documentation to FEMA’s Chicago office July 18.

But Marquette County officials said MSP/EMHSD didn’t submit the full amount of the damages, and that the affected counties have been hampered every step of the way by a state government that doesn’t understand the severity of the problems or the counties’ necessity for taking actions to prevent even more widespread damage.

Negaunee City Manager Jeff Thornton said that before passing the numbers on to FEMA, MSP/EMHSD removed certain costs it considered ineligible, such as thawing water customers’ laterals. Though laterals are in the public right-of-way, they belong to the homeowner. Thornton said letting customers’ laterals freeze would have soon meant frozen mains and much more costly damage.

“We want water flowing through those laterals, because we want water flowing through those mains,” he said.

Thornton said he knew “the state police had their minds set from the very beginning” after they sent a contingent to the U.P. in April for a meeting with local officials about the damages that was not open to the public or press.

“They flew out as soon as they flew in, didn’t really even tour around to see the damages,” he said.

Marquette County Board Commissioner Greg Seppanen said the state also didn’t count the costs incurred due to orders to thousands of customers to let their water run.

“The state said they weren’t going to submit (let-run costs) in to FEMA,” he said. “I would hope that our state officials would be backing us up.”

Seppanen said it didn’t make sense that the state wouldn’t submit the costs of let-runs, but if the counties had failed to issue let-runs and allowed large parts of their systems freeze – causing widespread, expensive damage and leaving thousands of people without water – those damages would have then been eligible.

“The logic is absolutely insane,” he said. “And I just find it hard to believe that the folks down in Lansing, the agency that was dealing with us, could not figure that out. It’s beyond the pale. It’s just one of those situations where they really don’t understand what’s going on up in the U.P. In 30 years of being in local government, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”