FEMA Disaster Reimbursements On Hold For Damaged Roads and Bridges

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(Grass Range, MT – YPR) – Money to help local communities and states following a record year of natural disasters is in limbo due to wrangling in Congress.

The impasse means FEMA’s disaster relief fund could run out of money early this week. In the meantime, reimbursements for disasters in Montana and 41 other states are on hold.

In Montana, Fergus County was hard hit by last Spring’s flooding. County Commissioner Ken Ronish says over a dozen bridges were washed out. He says he knows some residents are impatient with the slow progress of getting roads and bridges repaired.

When asked about the lack of action in Congress, Ronish said commissioners met with Montana’s Congressional delegation. He adds, the central Montana county has borrowed $1 million from the state’s inter-cap loan fund to start repairs.

“When the million dollars is done, we’re done except for routine maintenance,” Ronish says. “The FEMA people keep telling us don’t worry. This happens every year. I hope they’re right.”

In the meantime, Fergus County paid $130,000 for a temporary bridge across McDonald Creek in Grass Range, MT.

In mid-May, constant rain caused the creek to rise. The flood waters washed away the approaches to the existing wooden bridge that connects Main Street to the Forest Grove Road.

The 2010 U-S Census reports there are 110 residents in Grass Range. Despite the town’s small size, resident Ron Nelson says this farm-to-market road and bridge gets a lot of traffic.

“It gets a lot of hay traffic and a lot of cattle,” he says. “They’ll ship about 9,000-head of cattle right here. So there will be 5 to 6 semis a day pretty soon.”

Nelson remembers the day the approach to the bridge fell away.

“One guy went across and then he thought he saw a hole, so he gunned it. And he got across,” Nelson says.  “Looking back down there it was all open under there. Luckily no one fell through.”

Another neighbor, Carroll Merritt says his pickup was the third vehicle across the bridge before the asphalt fell away, leaving a gap between the bridge and the road.

Fergus County officials tried unsuccessfully to barricade the washed out bridge. Residents were left with an up to 20 mile detour to get to the Post Office. After a while, some of the residents got impatient.

Merritt remembers someone decided to drop I-beams across the gap so trucks, not cars, could use the bridge.

“You had to lean out the window and get your front tire in that I-beam and then you could go onto the bridge and hit that other I-beam,” he says.

“I wouldn’t recommend that anybody cross this bridge that way,” says structural engineer and FEMA Project Specialist Gary Tubach of San Diego. Tubach was assigned to evaluate this bridge and submit the paperwork for possible federal disaster reimbursement.

“They have a wood bridge here that is pretty typical of a lot of the wood bridges that I have seen in Montana that have suffered damage from the flooding,” he says. “The old school of thought on economical bridge design was to design a bridge with the shortest span possible which meant they built the abutments within the stream itself.”

Structural Engineer Gary Tubach (left) and FEMA spokesman John Maclean at a washed out bridge in Grass Range, MT

Tubach says the problem with that is when there’s a large flood event, the abutments restrict the channel which causes the water velocity to rise. He says that scours the soil around the abutments, wing walls, and the road approach pads.

He says the temporary bridge was constructed by Roscoe Bridge of Missoula out of newer, stronger materials, but it is too narrow to meet current federal bridge regulations.

Fergus County Commisioner Ken Ronish says the county considered dropping an old railroad car into the creek as a temporary bridge for Grass Range. It is what the county did for the residents near Spring Creek on Timberline Road in Lewistown, MT. “But we couldn’t sue a railroad car in Grass Range because the creek was too wide,” Ronish says. “So we put in this temporary bridge.” Ronish says the county is hoping it will be reimbursed for the cost.

FEMA spokesman John Maclean says once a Presidential Disaster Declaration is made FEMA does not rank projects based on the size of the community or the extent of damage. He says the agency takes requests for reimbursement on a case-by-case basis as they are submitted by local governments.

“Initially it is up to the locals to deal with it (pay for initial repairs or replacement),” Maclean says. “But if this is your bridge it is as important to you as a main highway in the Northeast.”