WisBiz In-Depth: Viola cleanup goes on without FEMA funds

By Gregg Hoffmann

VIOLA – The cleanup continues from the Aug. 18 tornado that hit this tiny village of 704 people.

With the help of volunteers from all over the area and state, and some state Department of Commerce funds, roofs are being put back on homes, debris is being hauled away and structures are being rebuilt.

And, as many village residents will tell you, the rebuilding is being done, “No thanks to FEMA.”

FEMA denied the state request for emergency funds for cleanup of Viola, Stoughton and other places damaged by an estimated 27 tornados that plowed through the state on that August night. That denial angered and disappointed Viola officials and residents, but they didn’t stew for long.

“We have a long history of independence and self-reliance in this area,” said Carol Oliver, a former legal secretary who is serving as the Viola Emergency Management Coordinator. “Within 30 minutes of the storm 18 two-man crews went door-to-door, checking on residents.

“Volunteers have come from as far away as Milwaukee and Door County to help cleanup. We’ve worked hard, without help from the federal government.”

Oliver’s office has documented some of the volunteer efforts. They include 878 hours within the first two or three days of the storm by women at a local church, 139 volunteer comprising 29 teams that went door-to-door to help with the cleanup, more than 150 Amish, Mennonite and German Baptist members who helped with cleanup and rebuilding, volunteers from 12 area fire departments and first responders, donated time by area contractors and other businesses.

This community effort very well might have contributed to FEMA’s denial. “They told us we basically went to work too quickly,” said Viola village president Richard Johannesen.

“They told us that would hurt us. We would be better off having left the stumps because they can point to that, but not a hole where the stump had been.”

Oliver said the damage was well-documented by photographs. FEMA officials, who reported to the scene five days after the storm, were shown the documentation and toured the village, as well as surrounding towns where damage occurred. About a dozen FEMA representatives worked in teams. But, funds were still denied.

Katrina Effect

Viola officials believe that Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and politics after the Bush Administration was criticized for its slow response in that situation, hurt their own attempt to get aid.

“Republicans have traditionally drawn a lot of votes from this area because we want to keep our guns,” Johannesen said. “But, the Bush Administration responded to Katrina three days too slowly, and I believe that was a factor for our request. It seems like the Administration is worried about those at the top and at the bottom, but not those of us who fall in the middle.”

Village officials have received e-mails and other communications from people around the country about what they claim have been FEMA abuses in the cleanup of the Gulf Coast. One came from a brother of a Viola resident whose trucking company was hired for $1,000 per day for the cleanup of hurricane debris in Louisiana. The email also claimed that the owner of the truck he drives gets an additional $5,000 per day for the use of the vehicle.

Viola officials emphasize they have great empathy with the victims of Katrina and Rita, the second hurricane which hit parts of Texas and Louisiana a couple weeks ago. In fact, more than $600,000 in donations for the hurricane victims has been raised from the La Crosse and Kickapoo Valley areas.

“Like somebody told me, it just hurts when you see players from the Green Bay Packers urging people to send money to Louisiana when we are wondering how the bills will be paid here,” Oliver said. “Like he said, we probably have more Packers’ fans here than in the whole state of Louisiana. People just want to be treated fairly.”

Johannesen said the fact Viola lay part in Richland County and part in Vernon County also has been a problem. “They have allowed us to work with a Richland County agency as one community, but otherwise we would have two counties to deal with,” he said. “One of my first priorities after we get through this is to see what we can do to become completely part of one county.”

The state Department of Commerce has responded with $500,000 for the Village of Viola, which suffered $1.3 million in damages alone, including electric utilities, street lighting, sidewalk damage from trees that were uprooted and other destruction.

That department also has worked with the Neighborhood Housing Services of Richland County and the state on a grant of more than $821,000, which will be distributed to private home owners who do not have enough insurance to cover losses. Both those aid packages were considered this week by DOC committees.

Several thousand dollars also have been donated by individuals and companies. That money will be distributed through an “Unmet Needs Committee” that has been set up by Viola.

But, going uncovered at this point are the cost of damages to farm buildings, out-buildings, vacation homes, rental units, businesses and others. A business group, headed by local insurance agent David Wright, does have a meeting set for Oct. 27 with the Richland County Economic Development Corp. to consider how to pursue rebuilding.

“Sometimes from a disaster like this can come an opportunity,” said Bruce Bullamore, executive director of the RCEDC. “You can come to a tipping point where you either do business like you have in the past or invest in some new way of doing business.

“What we hope to do is hold a facilitation meeting, at which people can identify what ideally Viola has that could be leveraged into a rebuilding project. For example, you have S&S Cycle and Organic Valley near there, a stockyards in town, a campground, the Horse & Colt show. Can a cluster of services be developed around those entities? I still have to run it by my board, but we have started the discussion.”

‘Not of such severity and magnitude’

In issuing the denial of funds, FEMA official R. David Paulison said the damage from the tornados "was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments."

Congressman Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who represents the area, continues to work to see if the FEMA denial can be appealed. Gov Jim Doyle and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk toured the area shortly after the storm.

“Kathleen Falk told me she was from a small town, and it was good to see that the community pride and tradition of helping each other continued,” Johannesen said. “She shook dirty hands that day and didn’t just go to those in the suits.”

Doyle called FEMA’s denial “unbelievable” when it was first announced. Doyle said FEMA is distracted by Hurricane Katrina and stung by criticism that the agency spent excessively in the wake of previous disasters.

"We just came along at the wrong time," he said. But "several hundred families and some local governments in this state really need the help," he said.

Doyle’s office announced the DOC aid for homeowners on Wednesday. "I’m pleased that the state could help two counties (Richland and Vernon) hard-hit by the recent tornado," Doyle said. "In the wake of the decision by the federal government to deny Wisconsin disaster assistance, this funding is even more critical to help rebuild the homes, and lives, of families displaced by this disaster."

State Sen. Dan Kapanke and Rep. Lee Nerison, both Republicans, are sponsoring measures that could bring block grant money to Viola and other affected communities. Viola officials say they have no desire to make their plight a matter of partisan politics, and want to work with any political representative who can help.

The Viola area is not well-to-do, according to officials. “We have more children on the free lunch program in our area schools than any other community in the state,” Oliver said. “That gives you an idea on where we are as far as income.”

Many individuals in the area also are forced to go uninsured or under-insured. One preliminary estimate has about a $700,000 deficit between insurance coverage and damages.

Johannesen said taxpayers in the Viola area do not have the money to pay more for village municipal cleanup. “We already had leaky roofs on village buildings that would cost $190,000 to repair,” he said. “Now with this; we just can’t put it all on the tax roll.”

The village also is under the state’s 2 percent levy increase limit. The 2006 village tax levy can’t exceed $58,558. Contractor bills already total $104,000. So, the village has applied for a state Small Cities Community Development Grant.

Village officials and residents are proud that despite the devastation to the community, the 75th annual Viola Horse & Colt Show recently was held as scheduled. They will continue to work to rebuild their community, with or without aid from the federal government.

“There are some good things happening,” said Oliver, who had never been involved in emergency coordination until this storm. “The response of the volunteers and the community has been wonderful to see. We will continue to work on.”