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FEMA: Too early to say if southern Utah qualifies for aid following flooding

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ST. GEORGE — Even though southern Utah escaped a lot of damage during last month's floods, there are some areas where repairs need to be made.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams are in southern Utah this week assessing the damage from last month's floods. In order get federal assistance, FEMA says the total public infrastructure damage has to exceed roughly $3 million. If it does, President Barack Obama can declare a disaster for southern Utah, allowing that money to flow in.

So is there enough damage to public infrastructures to qualify for federal assistance?

"That's probably anybody's guess, but I'm guessing we're real close," said Peter Kuhlmann, emergency services director for Washington County. "We'll wait and see and hopefully we'll have the figures come up pretty quick."

FEMA inspectors may have an answer by today or early next week.

Crews have been working to fix a bridge, which connects Gunlock to Veyo and Enterprise. Having federal money would certainly help Washington County. Those FEMA teams have been to several areas in the St. George region to look at damage caused by the floods the week before Christmas.

Besides the bridge in Gunlock, they've looked at washed-out roads near Enterprise, Motoqua, and even on Highway 91 near the Arizona line. The highway used to be the main road to Mesquite and Las Vegas before I-15 opened. It's still used when I-15 has to be closed near St. George, so getting the road repaired is a priority for the county.

FEMA inspectors say southern Utah has a lot of success stories from the floods, especially because of all the mitigation work done after the 2005 floods.

In 2005, flooding along the Santa Clara River destroyed dozens of homes, gobbled up acres of land and ruined numerous city parks, miles of trails and damaged local golf courses. Both the Santa Clara River and the Virgin River surged out of control for days, eventually moving beyond established flood plains and causing long-term worries for many residents living near the new river channels.

City and county officials quickly sought federal and state help in paying for the more than $185 million in estimated public and private losses due to flooding.

In fact, inspectors say the St. George area can be an example for other cities across the country.

"We try to document what worked well from what we initiated after the previous event," said Doug Bausch, FEMA mitigation inspector, "and so documenting those success stories are important because it helps us fund future mitigation projects."

The big question, however, is whether the St. George area prevented so much damage that it now doesn't qualify for federal assistance in areas that did get some damage. No matter what, the repairs have to be done.

"If funds don't become available, that doesn't stop us from continuing to look for other resources, but the reality is we would have to continue with the repairs," said Kuhlmann. "That would slow the process a little bit, but we would still have to be vigilant as we can to get the job done."

That's what work crews have been doing to a bridge in Gunlock ever since the water washed a section of it away.

e-mail: acabrero@desnews.com