Several Illinois counties granted disaster declaration

Thursday, June 9, 2011
Clarence Bigham looks out over the now dry farmland across Illinois Highway 3 from his Olive Branch, Ill., home Wednesday, June 8, 2011. Bigham and his wife raised six children inside their Olive Branch home. (Laura Simon)

OLIVE BRANCH, Ill. -- Jim Melton was waiting Wednesday on the proper paperwork to begin rebuilding his life -- his home, his business, his past, all drowned under floodwaters unimagined until this spring.

The rise of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers conspired against Olive Branch in particular, deluging the Southern Illinois community of about 800. The floods cost Melton his bait shop, his rental properties on the south end of Horseshoe Lake and his home in the subdivision his dad helped develop years ago.

"I took all my walls out at 4 foot or above, stripped my house out of all the floors and everything, and now I'm waiting on permit so I can start building it back," he said.

James Dunn works outside his house on Cypress Drive Thursday, May 12, 2011 after floodwaters receded from Horseshoe Lake near Olive Branch, Ill. (Fred Lynch)

Following more than three weeks of pleading by local, county and state officials, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn late Tuesday announced President Obama had approved his request for a federal disaster declaration to help residents and businesses in 14 Southern Illinois counties recover from this spring's floods and severe storms

The declaration covers Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hardin, Jackson, Lawrence, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline, White and Williamson counties, making individuals and businesses eligible to apply for federal disaster assistance.

In the declaration zone, 109 homes were destroyed, nearly 350 sustained major damage and another 500 homes were damaged. The assessment by state and federal emergency management agencies and the Small Business Administration, found 87 firms sustained damage.

In Alexander County, floodwaters damaged 303 homes, severely damaged 115 and destroyed 24, according to Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

"It's been a long hard situation for the residents of Alexander County, a sad situation," said Marty Nicholson, the county's Emergency Management coordinator. "I still have a lot of people that aren't able to stay in their homes. The devastation in Alexander County is unreal."

Nicholson estimates as many as 80 percent of residents have reported some kind of water damage.

Thompson said the state this week sent its request for a federal disaster declaration for public assistance, seeking FEMA funding for governments affected by the floods.

FEMA officials urge residents affected call a toll-free number -- 800-621-3362 -- or visit FEMA's website,, to initiate help. The call, one official said, takes about 20 minutes and opens up flood victims to assistance ranging from grant money and low-interest loans for home repairs or cash to cover rent, health care bills and transportation. There typically is a 60-day window to file.

"Our No. 1 priority is to make people's homes safe, sanitary and functional again, the basic human needs," said John Mills, FEMA spokesman for Missouri.

Emergency management officials will set up disaster assistance offices in the declaration area. Nicholson said agencies could know by today where those offices will be. The centers are for those who want to meet with FEMA representatives, but it is not necessary to register in person.

Melton isn't holding his breath on federal help. He said he's been through this before -- in 1993, the last "500-year flood" that, by FEMA estimates, cost Melton about $60,000 in damage. He said he filled out a lot of forms to be told that he was eligible for a low-interest loan. He didn't want a loan then, and he doesn't want one now. He said he'll hold out for a grant.

"You work all your life to get out of debt, then this happens," Melton said. "Hopefully in another month I'll be back in my house, in another month after that, I'll be back in my business. If they help, fine. If not, I'll get back without them."

He said he'll just have to pull from his 401(k) and retire later than expected.

As the relief effort begins, the floods of 2011 aren't over for Alexander County communities like East Cape Girardeau and McClure, which are still dealing with seep water issues.

"We're still fighting. Our fight is not over yet," said Nicholson, although she said at least the federal declaration will help the region's flood victims start moving on with their lives.


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