May 25, 2011
By Erin Hevern
CAIRO, Ill. – As Alexander County and Cairo officials started assessing damages to public infrastructure Tuesday, Gov. Pat Quinn requested the federal government declare 14 Southern Illinois counties major disaster areas based on widespread damage to homes and businesses.
Assessment teams from the Illinois State Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were in the affected areas, including Alexander County, last week documenting the damage. According to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, in the 14 counties 109 homes were destroyed by the severe storms and flooding, 348 homes suffered major damage, 307 businesses have major damage and more than 800 other homes and businesses were affected by the flooding.
"There's a lot that went into getting the damage estimates. That's part of what took so long," Simon said.
IEMA communications manager Patti Thompson said the Illinois counties haven't been declared disaster areas yet because agencies didn't have quick access to flooded homes and businesses.
She added that IEMA rushed to request a declaration after flooding in 2008 and got denied. Appeals followed and slowed the process of being approved for a federal disaster declaration.
"That's why we really tried to balance being quick as possible and being efficient as possible," Thompson said.
Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman said Tuesday he would have liked to see the county declared a disaster area Monday, or days before. Alexander County had 303 structures affected by late April and May storms and flooding.
"We were already in a financial bind before this event came along, so it just pushed us further into debt," Coleman said.
The county will have additional flood-related expenses as cities like Cairo assess damages to streets, utilities and public buildings.
In Cairo, Commercial Avenue and sections of Martin Luther King Jr. Street are among the most heavily damaged blocks. The 400 block of 14th Street is closed as a sinkhole covers the entire width of the street. The same is true at 11th Street and Commercial Avenue, where several sinkholes and breaks in the pavement have blocked any traffic in front of the Cairo Public Utility building.
Other damaged streets include 15th Street and Cedar Street, 15th Street and Poplar Street and the 1800 block of Washington Avenue. Evaluations of damages to public buildings were not complete Tuesday, and Coleman wouldn't release to the media the name of a special projects manager working to complete the list of damages.
Cairo Public Utilities assistant manager Glen Klett said he's seen the large sinkholes in front of the building on several occasions. They happen as a result of high groundwater flow and occur, Klett said, in the same location during almost every flooding event. He expects the situation to get worse as river levels continue to drop.
"It definitely hurts our business," Klett said.
He added that after past disaster events, FEMA offered aid to restore the damaged sections of road to the state they were in before the flooding.
"There's never been a complete fix," he said.
According to Jeff Denny, an Alexander County Highway Department engineer, damage to county roads is widespread.
"We have at least 25 miles of road underwater right now, so we don't know exactly what we're going to have," Denny said. "We're still hauling sandbags and then doing some debris removal in those areas."
In the meantime, Denny is trying to get familiar with exactly what sort of the damage the county is dealing with so he can report them to agencies like IEMA. Denny and other county officials met Tuesday afternoon to organize a list of damages.
"We had a lot of roads that were washed out. We got in trouble with culverts and bridges, too, that will need to be repaired. And there's a lot of cleanup to do," he said.
Thirty percent of the county's roads are gravel, and many of them are washed out or still covered with floodwaters.
IEMA officials said they had not completed their public assistance assessments in Alexander County, as crews began the evaluations Monday.
Thompson said with five IEMA assessment teams on the ground, who are working with FEMA officials, they hope to complete an inventory of expenses related to emergency protective measures, road and public facility damages by the end of this week.
"We're trying to do this as quickly as possible. We wouldn't want somebody to be left out because they didn't have all their information," Thompson said.