Questions arise over federal aid for flooded Nevada town |

Questions arise over federal aid for flooded Nevada town

Martin Griffith
Associated Press Writer

FERNLEY, Nev. (AP) ” Building inspectors are going door to door, trying to assess damage to hundreds of homes flooded in this northern Nevada community when a levee along a century-old irrigation canal crumbled.

But with most homeowners lacking flood insurance, the question of who will pay is anything but certain.

“The Bureau of Reclamation owns the canal, but the Truckee Carson Irrigation District manages it,” Jeff Page, Lyon County’s emergency services director, told about 400 residents during a meeting Monday night.

“So that’s going to be an issue, who is responsible for what, and that’s an answer I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully when it comes time to fund it they will look at that it’s a federal property and that will help push the directive to get done.”

Gov. Jim Gibbons declared the neighborhood a disaster area on Saturday, hours after terrified residents awoke to rapidly rising water in their homes. But Michael Karl of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said full-scale federal aid that would allow for grants and low-interest loans to victims is not guaranteed.

“It is not going to be a slam dunk,” Karl said Monday while touring the area where floodwaters had been as deep as eight feet.

Over the weekend, the Nevada Division of Emergency Management estimated 290 homes had varying degrees of flood damage, but Karl put the number at 200, and said half of those had major damage.

While Karl said the governor’s request for a disaster declaration from President Bush seemed “marginal,” he added there were added factors such as victims’ lack of flood insurance ” only one homeowner had such a policy ” and the flood’s adverse economic impact on the town 30 miles east of Reno.

Gibbons, in his request expected to arrive Tuesday at the White House, included initial repair and cleanup estimates approaching $4 million, and indicated that follow-up assessments could push that total higher.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., joined by Karl and state officials, took a helicopter tour over the flooded area on Monday and later pledged to fight for the federal declaration.

“If an emergency is not declared, it will create major problems for the people of Fernley and Lyon County,” said Reid, who was backed by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., in pressing for the order from Bush.

Reid also said he would seek funding to improve the 105-year-old, earthen canal, referring to both the canal rupture early Saturday and a Minnesota bridge collapse last August that killed 13 people.

“We have a problem with the infrastructure in this country, and I have been a longtime advocate of doing something about it,” Reid said. “It just has to be done.”

Terry Gilbert, Fernley’s community development director, said assessors have inspected 90 homes in the area. Of those, two so far have been tagged red, meaning they are considered uninhabitable.

“As we work to the north, we’re going to find more of the severe damage because the water was deeper and was standing water for a longer time,” Gilbert told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Betsy Rieke, area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said that she and her colleagues are unsure what caused the breach but are hoping an agency investigation will help find answers.

She said Fernley soil and strata samples have been sent to a bureau team in Sacramento for review. The agency also plans to examine the last canal rupture ” a December 1996 collapse that flooded 60 Fernley homes ” for any clues.

“It may be hard to pinpoint the cause. The evidence washed away,” Rieke said after attending the meeting with Reid. “We don’t know how long the investigation will take. We’ve got to do it right.”

Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said he’s aware of at least six past breaks of the canal. At least three occurred before 1926 when the federal government operated the canal, and three have taken place since, he said.

TCID has an operating agreement with the federal Bureau of Reclamation to run the 31-mile-long canal that takes water from the Truckee River near Reno to farms around Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno. The contract is renewed every five years and was last renewed in 2007.

Asked whether it would be possible to strengthen the canal by lining it with cement, Schank replied, “That would be wonderful if you could come up with the money. The cost would be in the hundreds of millions, if not the billions.”

Rieke said there’s no question the collapse will lead to lawsuits.

“I think it’ll be highly litigated,” she told The Associated Press. “We believe the district would be liable.”

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