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Disaster by the numbers: County adding them up

Damage estimates could surge past $150 million

SHARE Disaster by the numbers: County adding them up

ST. GEORGE — Damage estimates are quickly rising in the wake of massive flooding in Washington County, and one official says the amount could easily surge past $150 million.

"The numbers I heard floating out in the meeting this morning doubled our early estimates," said Washington County Emergency Services Coordinator Dean Cox on Friday. "It could double from the $86 million we heard yesterday."

Shoring up the newly formed channel walls of the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers is a top priority.

"We're hearing we'll need 20,000 lineal feet of rock to help prevent further erosion," Cox said. "That'll cost from $40 to $60 million."

Dozens of homes have been lost to the floods or were so structurally compromised that officials have begun condemning the properties in the interest of public safety.

Five teams of people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in St. George Thursday to begin the tedious process of assessing the damage.

"We are not going to be able to go to every house that was lost, but we're trying to get a handle on it and firm up the numbers," said Martin McNeese, lead individual assistant on FEMA's damage assessment team. "Making a decision for the whole process will depend on the amount of information we can provide the governor. We hope to do that by Sunday morning."

Disaster declarations

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. needs those numbers to convince President Bush that Washington County should be designated a federal disaster area.

"It probably and most likely will be several weeks before a declaration is made," McNeese said during a conference call from St. George to reporters statewide. "Grants would be out within 24 hours. But getting a presidential declaration and getting FEMA's help isn't actually going to make anyone whole."

Utah's newly appointed commissioner of agriculture and food said he is seeking a federal agricultural disaster declaration for farmers and ranchers affected by flooding.

"I want our farmers and ranchers to know we are devastated over their losses, and we are doing all we can to help them through this tough time," Commissioner Leonard Blackham said.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are assessing damage to farmland and plan to release a report next week. If a disaster declaration is approved, farmers and ranchers can be eligible for low-interest loans.

Other assistance may be available through county Farm Service Agencies. For more information, visit: www.fsa.usda.gov.

Lost homes

Homeowners without flood insurance will be hardest hit, and it appears most property owners in the county fall into that category, said Simon Cardenas with the National Flood Insurance Program.

"There are only 152 homeowners with flood insurance policies in Washington County, covering $32.8 million," said Cardenas, who added he is identifying where those homes are with the help of the county. "We'll know which of those houses are ruined and which are in danger."

Cox and others are worried more flood damage could be in Washington County's future. (See accompanying story on current snowpack measurements.)

Most of the homes lost to the floods were built on sandy ground along the Santa Clara River in an area of St. George called Green Valley. Subdivisions with names such as "Creekside," "Shadow Creek," and "Riverwood" lined the river, and those neighborhoods bore the brunt of last week's flood.

They also were the recipients of thousands of volunteer hours from strangers and business owners who opened up their hearts. St. George Mayor Dan McArthur said those hours are important to the city in another way.

"Those hours and donations of equipment help us meet our 25 percent match for FEMA funds," the mayor said, adding the city and county are focusing their efforts now on recovering from the crisis.

"We want to try to match the needs of the private individual with the right volunteer," McArthur said. "There are still needs. If someone wants to help clear the mud off trails, we'll match them to that project."

Local donations

Those who wish to donate to a disaster relief fund were urged to contact one of four local banks or credit unions, instead of the Red Cross.

"We're trying to keep the money local," said St. George assistant city manager Marc Mortensen, who added the local donation drives are specifically set up to help southern Utah's flood victims long term, while the Red Cross provides immediate, temporary help.

Among the financial institutions participating in the local effort are Zions Bank, Wells Fargo, Deseret First Credit Union, America First Credit Union. Zions Bank announced on Friday it had donated $50,000 to establish the "Southern Utah Disaster Relief Fund" and would distribute the money to communities hit hard by the floods.

Those interested in volunteer work or donating funds should call 435-628-9081.

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com