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Obama signs flood disaster declaration

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ST. PAUL - Twenty-one southern Minnesota counties will be eligible for federal disaster assistance after President Obama on Wednesday night declared the area a flood disaster area.

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Federal funding is available to state and local governments and some non-profit organizations for repair and replacement of facilities damaged in last month's flooding.

The Wednesday night action in Washington opens the door for the Minnesota Legislature to meet in a special session in St. Paul in the next few days. Lawmakers are expected to appropriate $80 million to cover state and local costs not funded by the federal money.

While Wednesday's declaration deals only with flooding that followed record rains in southern Minnesota, the legislative session also is expected to approve $6.6 million in aid to help the Wadena area recover from a June 17 tornado.

Southern Minnesotans have waited for word that they will receive federal aid for floods that were especially serious in the southeast.

"Our local officials, first responders, citizens and volunteers have done tremendous work responding to these devastating floods," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, said. "I have seen first-hand the widespread damage that these southern Minnesota communities have endured and with this assistance, these communities can begin working to rebuild. This is a good beginning, and I will continue to work with state and federal officials for additional assistance."

Graig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Blue Earth, Cottonwood, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Goodhue, Jackson, Lincoln, Lyon, Martin, Mower, Murray, Olmsted, Pipestone, Rice, Rock, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca, Watonwan and Winona counties are eligible for federal aid.

Money also will be available for preventing future floods statewide, Fugate said.

Lawrence Sommers, who will coordinate Minnesota flood recovery, said more counties could be added to the disaster area.

Public facilities such as roads and buildings damaged by floods will be repaired or replaced by 75 percent federal funding, with the state providing the remaining 25 percent.

It was not immediately clear whether the federal flood relief will be available to home and business owners.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to quickly call a special session to appropriate the state funds.

Staffs from the governor's office and top legislators negotiated a bill to be considered by lawmakers, and Pawlenty and legislative leaders agreed to the basics this week.

The governor insists that that bill is the only one to be considered by the special session, although some legislators are proposing other items. One being promoted is a bill to fight bullying in school.

Wadena got included in the bill after policymakers originally said they only wanted flood relief discussed.

"When the governor announced that a special session would be held to aid the September flood victims, I requested that disaster relief also be provided to Wadena," Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said. "Our region was devastated by the tornado, losing homes, businesses, community facilities and our high school. I'm very pleased that legislative leaders and the governor agreed to help us recover."

Wadena money would include $5.2 million to match federal disaster relief. Another $693,000 would be given to the school district to help with additional transportation costs caused by the tornado.

Also, $750,000 would be appropriated to plan for a new community center to replace facilities the tornado destroyed. It would be near or connected to a new high school.

Skogen initially sought $20.5 million for the community center.

The flood relief portion of the bill includes $38.4 million in cash, $36.7 million in borrowed money and $5 million from a highway fund.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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