Moolenaar bill would boost cost-sharing to aid localities hit by flooding

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — On the one-year anniversary of the Edenville dam's failure, a bill introduced Wednesday in the U.S. House would boost federal cost-sharing aid to small local governments after a federal disaster like the flooding that overwhelmed the Midland area last May.

The Rural Disaster Support and Relief Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, would increase federal cost-sharing assistance to communities of fewer than 50,000 residents to 90%, up from 75% authorized under the Stafford Act, for federal disasters in 2020 or 2021.

Three weeks since the flooding in Midland.  We go back to the same spot of the original photos to see how Midland, Michigan looks today on June 9, 2020.

If adopted, localities would only be responsible for 10% of eligible costs under the federal program that reimburses them for certain types of disaster response, such as hazard mitigation, debris removal, emergency protective measures and repairs or reconstruction of damaged infrastructure.

Moolenaar, a Midland Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the legislation came out of conversations with residents and leaders of the smaller communities that were unprepared for the 500-year flood.

"The goal is to get a better cost-share agreement with the federal government. It's going to help the region and save local governments millions of dollars," Moolenaar said.

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"The bottom line is small communities simply don't have the resources to fully rebuild after a disaster like this. And we need some extra assistance to get everything back to the way it was." 

The Edenville and Sanford dams on the Tittabawassee River were breached May 19, 2020, after heavy rains and winds, emptying Wixom Lake and flooding parts of the Midland area. More than 10,000 people were evacuated, and the flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Then-President Donald Trump in July approved a major disaster declaration request by the state, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration estimated the damage across a five-county area as roughly $190 million in losses for residents and $55 million in damage to public infrastructure.

Moolenaar said the change he's seeking to the cost-sharing assistance would be retroactive to cover costs from the flooding disaster last year.

Three weeks since the flooding in Midland.  We go back to the same spot of the original photos to see how Midland, Michigan looks today on June 9, 2020.

He offered Sanford as an example, which had massive devastation in its downtown area, with the Village Hall floating downstream and crashing into another building, and as many as 15 houses destroyed in one area.

"You have all this debris that accumulates, and who cleans that up?" Moolenaar said. "When you look at parks that were destroyed, all this damage that was done, simply in the area of debris removal, this will save millions of dollars."

Moolenaar has also reintroduced a bill with Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, that aims to ensure compliance with dam and hydropower safety requirements and strengthen owner accountability for repairs and maintenance. Dingell has suggested the legislation could become part of President Joe Biden's proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package. 

The legislation, first introduced in December, was drafted in response to the findings that regulators had struggled for years with oversight of dam operator Boyce Hydro, which had a history of safety and compliance problems and missed deadlines. 

The bill would mandate that dam and hydropower works meet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's dam safety requirements, and would require that the commission only issue a new license after it determines that the dam meets those safety requirements. 

It would also require FERC to establish procedures to evaluate the financial health of prospective hydropower licensees and create a requirement for FERC to convene technical conferences with state regulators to examine best practices for dam safety.

Separately, Moolenaar has submitted requests for earmarked funding to the Appropriations Committee related to mid-Michigan dams, including $750,000 to make Midland's sewer system more resilient in flood events and $1 million for public safety booms to warn boaters not to get close to the Secord and Smallwood dams.