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Published March 02 2012

Hoeven’s FEMA bill could give cities relief from future floods

WASHINGTON – Flood-ravaged cities such as Fargo and Moorhead could be better protected from future floods under a new bill sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The bill, called the FEMA Common Sense and Cost Effectiveness Act and recently passed in the U.S. Senate, gives cities greater flexibility in building permanent levees on land bought out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

FEMA rules now prohibit building permanent structures – including levees – on land purchased with grant program money. This means cities can only build temporary levees on such land, which need to be removed after a flood.

Fargo and Moorhead leaders say though the bill would likely help future flood fights, it wouldn’t have much of an immediate impact simply because FEMA has not bought out many houses in the metro area.

For a house to be eligible for a FEMA buyout, it must meet a complicated formula involving damage from past floods and risk from future floods, said Fargo City Engineer Mark Bittner.

But because the city has been successful in preventing flood damage to houses in the past, there are not many structures that have met FEMA’s criteria, he said.

Bittner sees Hoeven’s bill as a positive step, however.

“We support it, we commented on it, but in all reality we’re not going to be able to take advantage of it until houses do get damaged,” he said.

Across the river, Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman also said only a handful of buyout lots would be affected by passage of the bill.

“We have a few FEMA buyout lots where we would like to be able to construct permanent levees,” he said. “We can’t do that currently, so if (the bill) passed, it would be positive.”

He added that most of the buyouts in Moorhead have used state, not FEMA, funds, mostly because of FEMA’s complicated formula.

The bill is being considered in the U.S. House.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535