Flood-ravaged areas await federal dollars to help with needed repairs

Lon Buller is playing an uneasy waiting game.

The Harvey County Emergency Management director is keeping an eye on the sky and the calendar, hoping autumn rains won’t wash away temporary repairs to flood-ravaged roads and bridges north of Wichita before federal funds are made available to bankroll more permanent fixes.

Gov. Sam Brownback last week requested a federal disaster declaration for 47 counties across the state — including every county in the Wichita metropolitan area except Sedgwick — because of storm damage and flooding that hammered much of Kansas between July 22 and August 16. Four people died in flooding spawned by rains that were frequent and often heavy.

“Some of these counties received as much as 500 percent above the normal amount of rainfall for the time of year,” Brownback said in a statement announcing the request for a federal disaster declaration, which — if approved — would make federal dollars available for the repair of damaged or destroyed infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

Local governments have to provide matching funds or services, but those could take the form of using local equipment to complete needed work, Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said.

“I don’t mind it raining — I just wish we wouldn’t get our annual amount over three days,” Reno County Emergency Management director Bill Guy said. “I actually had green grass in my yard in August this year, and that’s the first time I can ever remember that.”

Flooding was so widespread in Harvey County at one point, Buller said, “if you’d have started at one end of the county you’d have never been able to drive through the county without driving through some water.”

Culverts, shoulders, approaches to bridges all washed out somewhere in the county, he said.

Temporary repairs have been made, emergency managers say, but they won’t stand up to a wet autumn.

“Bailing wire, beer cans and bubble gum” are holding some of the repairs in place, Guy joked.

“We’ve got townships that have maybe a $10,000 budget, and they’ve got maybe $200,000 worth of damage,” he said.

Some township roads in Reno County are still closed, he said, as well as the bridge at 56th and Pennington northwest of Hutchinson. All roads in Harvey and Butler counties are open again, though some in Butler County have had edges of the road so eaten away they are now wide enough for only one lane of traffic.

Bill Eberhardt got a taste of what Noah may have felt like. It rained for 45 consecutive days in Spring Township near Augusta in Butler County, he said.

“Constantly,” said Eberhardt, a township trustee. “Our township is so hilly, once that water starts running it just eats away at the road.”

Butler and Reno counties both had more than $1 million in qualifying damage from the summer storms. Much of Butler’s damage was a water line from Santa Fe Lake to the city of Augusta, Schmidt said.

“We’ve had a lot of township road damage,” Schmidt said.

When emergency management officials put out the word to townships about when to submit damage reports, “we had a whole building full of people that morning,” Schmidt said.

The damaged water line shouldn’t be a major problem for Augusta, Schmidt said, because the city can draw water from Augusta City Lake and El Dorado Lake as well.

If he was a betting man, Schmidt said, he would guess the chances of the federal declaration being approved are 95 percent. But the timing for the federal funds being made available is less clear — so the uneasy wait for Buller and other emergency management directors will continue.

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