By Sara Israelsen
A Federal Emergency Management Agency team landed in St. George Thursday afternoon to begin evaluating damage in the flood-ravaged region.
Southern Utah has been battling floodwaters for almost a week, as heavy rains left families homeless with their houses hanging precariously on the edges of eroded riverbanks.
So far, 14 homes in St. George have dropped into the swollen Santa Clara River, 36 have been compromised and labeled uninhabitable and 30-50 families are displaced, living with relatives, neighbors and staying in local hotels. The preliminary price tag for the area: more than $80 million.
Earlier this week, Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. issued an executive order declaring Utah in a state of emergency, and on Wednesday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch sent a letter to President George W. Bush supporting Huntsman?s request and urging President George W. Bush to quickly label southern Utah as a national disaster area.
In order to for Utah to receive government aid, the governor must first make a request through the regional FEMA office. An assessment team is then sent out, comprised of a FEMA representative, a representative from the small business administration and state and local representatives who will go over their preliminary figures. After the damage estimate is compiled, the group will give the report to the governor who will then see if he can substantiate a request for a presidential declaration of disaster.
The team will begin assessments today, hoping to be finished by Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.
?From our perspective, anytime someone loses their home, or there?s a loss of life, it?s a big disaster,? said FEMA spokesperson Jim Chestnut, who is with the assessment team in St. George. ?That?s all there is to it. This is a catastrophic event ? that?s how we look at it. We don?t compare it to anything else.?
By definition, Chestnut said the federal government doesn?t get financially involved unless the needs exceed state and local capabilities. However, when there is a demand for life-saving, life-preserving types of activities, the federal aid process can be expedited.
?The total damage [in Southern Utah] is very substantial,? Chestnut said. ?But people at this point are being well served by local, state [government], church and neighbors for those basic life-sustaining-type needs. What we?re looking at is helping to shoulder the financial burden of this disaster.?
If a presidential declaration is made, FEMA will provide assistance in two major categories: public and individual. The public category will give money for repairs to public infrastructure, roads, bridges, sewer lines, while individual assistance will help people who have lost their homes and possessions.
While waiting for national assistance, the Utah government has helped by calling out the Utah National Guard and sending as many as 50,000 sandbags.
?Utah doesn?t actually have any fund that pays for disasters,? said Derek Jensen, public information officer for Utah?s Division of Emergency Services & Homeland Security.
?The way the state steps in when this happens is with resources.?
And the resources keep coming. Craig Harding, public information office for the St. George Police Department said the level of support has been amazing.
A U-Haul dealership in the area donated all their vehicles to help residents evacuate belongings out of their house, storage shed companies have stepped forward to house those belongings and food vendors have come out of the woodwork, Harding said. Wal-Mart even donated a semi-truck full of bottled water.
?We have had people from all the surrounding communities,? Harding said. ?It?s unbelievable the number of volunteers down here?the local residents have come out in droves.?
Harding said volunteers team up, visit a family?s house and remove all property within 30 minutes, then head to the next house. One large group of volunteers and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banded together to move almost 40 families in one evening.
?People are just helping out, it?s amazing,? said Rob Tersigni, chief deputy for Washington County Sheriff?s Department. ?[There are] hundreds of people filling sandbags, volunteering equipment and trucks ? neighbors helping neighbors.?