City not banking on federal relief

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118780580631253.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Keith Creek at the railroad bridge just west of the 1100 block of Seminary Street near the Joseph Behr scrap yard. Residents say debris, which the city did not remove even after the 2006 Labor Day flooding, has been accumulating for years. This site, just east of where the creek empties into the Rock River, clearly shows potential for impeding the flow of the water out of the creek.‘);

Returning to Rockford a few days early from his honeymoon, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) stood before the press for the first time since the second flood in a year damaged homes and businesses throughout the city. The Churchill Park neighborhood, along Keith Creek, was especially hard hit by flood waters in both events.

Although in Canada, Morrissey said he was in daily contact with city staff. The mayor said the circumstances made for an unconventional honeymoon, but that he has a very understanding wife.

Some, however, are not as understanding that the mayor didn’t immediately return to Rockford upon learning his city had been declared a disaster area again.

“Did I think about coming back?” Morrissey asked. “Absolutely. And had we not been through the experience that we went through last year, had I not had the confidence in the team, as well as the technology to stay in communication, to participate in press conferences, to view actual damage from the storm, I may very well have come back.”

Morrissey thanked his staff, dozens of whom were formed in single lines on either side of the podium during the Aug. 15 press conference. The mayor also thanked Winnebago County, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army for their ongoing partnership with the city in dealing with the Aug. 7 disaster.

Morrissey told The Rock River Times he’d toured many of the affected areas, but had not yet met with victims, although he said he’d corresponded with some via e-mail while out of the country.

“My heart goes out to all of the members of our community that are suffering, many of whom have suffered for the second time in less than a year a very tragic flood incident,” Morrissey offered.

The mayor sees experience gained from last year’s Labor Day flooding as a silver lining this time around. Following the 2006 flood, a database of 768 homes was created, providing for a quicker response this year. The database is tied into WinGIS (Winnebago County Geographic Information System), which Morrissey says allows for a more rapid exchange of information with the state and federal governments.

As of Aug. 20, 19 homes in the City of Rockford have been condemned.

After being denied funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) for last year’s flood disaster, the mayor is less than optimistic we’ll receive financial relief for the most recent flooding.

“We’ll put ourselves in the best position that we possibly can to be in line for federal disaster declaration support,” Morrissey pledged. “That being said, I’m not going to hold my breath.”

There is no word yet on when FEMA will make a determination.

Meantime, the mayor said it’s important to push the federal government to recognize Rockford needs their support.

“The community pays a lot of federal taxes,” Morrissey argued. “We expect to get a fair share of those funds back, especially when we have such a pressing need, as is evidenced by these incidents.”

With no guarantee of federal dollars, Morrissey won’t rule out the possibility of a bond referendum for improvements to be made on a local level. Although tending to favor pay-as-you-go plans for regular maintenance, the mayor suggested an overhaul of this magnitude may warrant bonding.

“If it’s a long-term, big project,” Morrissey speculated, “I don’t think bonding is something we should take off the table.”

Although the Red Cross and Salvation Army continue handling immediate humanitarian needs, the mayor acknowledged more enduring concerns.

“Obviously, many long-term questions will remain,” Morrissey asserted, “not only for the families immediately affected, but anybody that is within an area that either has been, or might be, at risk for a storm water incident.”

Successful passage of the April 1 percentage point sales tax increase, according to Morrissey, is proving essential to addressing the problem.

“We’ve now got $6 million that was programmed well prior to this recent incident in terms of improving storm water management,” the mayor said, stressing steps taken by the city in the wake of 2006 flooding.

Nine plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Aug. 14, alleging the city is negligent for not taking adequate steps to prevent this year’s repeat. The mayor, however, maintains the city has done everything in its power to deal with the problem in the past year.

Noting he never promised it couldn’t happen again, Morrissey conceded, “At a certain point, when you keep having hundred-year incidents, you begin to wonder if it’s a hundred-year incident, or something that’s more frequent.

“After last year’s flood, the city went through a detailed process of debris removal,” Morrissey explained, “and we have been moving forward as judiciously and expediently as we can on the types of solutions that require buy-in from the entire community.”

The mayor indicated emergency repairs would immediately be made to the Alpine Dam, which was in danger of exceeding capacity during the Aug. 7 event. Although federal reimbursement is only a hope, Morrissey said the city is now taking the initiative in seeing to it repairs are made.

The city and county are also involved in creek cleanups in hopes of improving channel water-flow through the removal of debris.

Denying the plaintiffs’ charges, Morrissey said the city will file a response in the next 30-60 days.

As a partial remedy, the city may begin buying damaged homes in affected flood zones rather than tempt fate by rebuilding there.

“They are in harm’s way,” Morrissey stated. “It’s hard to imagine going to sleep in a home in one of those areas and not having some level of concern, especially if you don’t have flood insurance. That’s why flood insurance is offered in those areas.”

from the Aug. 22-28, 2007, issue

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