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Utah to receive $60M in USDA disaster aid to states

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 9:54 p.m. MST

FILE - In this May 26, 2011 file photo, a drag liner scoops dirt to breech the levee along the lower Weber River to help prevent flooding in farming communities at the Ogden Bird Refuge next to the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Utah and Missouri stand to receive more than one-third of $308 million in federal disaster aid announced Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in response to an unusually intense year of tornadoes, floods and forest fires across the nation. (AP Photo/The Deseret News, Tom Smart, File) (Associated Press) FILE - In this May 26, 2011 file photo, a drag liner scoops dirt to breech the levee along the lower Weber River to help prevent flooding in farming communities at the Ogden Bird Refuge next to the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Utah and Missouri stand to receive more than one-third of $308 million in federal disaster aid announced Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in response to an unusually intense year of tornadoes, floods and forest fires across the nation. (AP Photo/The Deseret News, Tom Smart, File) (Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — The nation's top agriculture official on Wednesday announced more than $300 million in emergency assistance to 33 states and Puerto Rico to help them recover from an unusually intense year for natural disasters across the U.S.

Utah and Missouri will receive the most disaster aid, together taking in $109 million, or more than one-third of the $308 million in aid from Department of Agriculture watershed and conservation emergency funds, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said before Wednesday's formal announcement.

The emergency funds are part of USDA's annual budget and money allocated from them will be used to repair and stabilize agriculture and public safety infrastructure. The federal money covers 75 percent of the cost of such repairs, and is distributed based on local agencies' applications and ability to pay the balance, according to the USDA.

FILE - In this May 15, 2011 file photo, Ellen Sowers walks down the flooded drive through a group of cabins along the South Fork of the Ogden River, east of Huntsville, Utah. Utah and Missouri stand to receive more than one-third of $308 million in federal disaster aid announced Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in response to an unusually intense year of tornadoes, floods and forest fires across the nation.  (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Nick Short) (Associated Press) FILE - In this May 15, 2011 file photo, Ellen Sowers walks down the flooded drive through a group of cabins along the South Fork of the Ogden River, east of Huntsville, Utah. Utah and Missouri stand to receive more than one-third of $308 million in federal disaster aid announced Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in response to an unusually intense year of tornadoes, floods and forest fires across the nation. (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Nick Short) (Associated Press)

Vilsack spokesman Matt Herrick said states were largely approved for the amount of money requested. Applications are most often handled by local Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices.

"We rely on the county offices because they are right there," said Gerald Hrdina, head of the Farm Service Agency's conservation section in Missouri. "The requests are funneled through here, and we decide whether to forward them to the national office. We very seldom deny an application."

Flooding last spring inundated thousands of acres of farmland in Utah, costing farmers tens of millions of dollars lost to damaged and destroyed crops or delayed planting. Utah will receive $60 million in watershed money for repair work and preventative measures in 13 cities and counties hit by floods within the last 13 months, said Bronson Smart, state conservation engineer for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

He said his agency requested that amount to deal with two rounds of flooding, including flash flooding in southern Utah in December 2010 and flooding last spring in northern and central parts of the state caused by a record snowpack.

Missouri suffered months of flooding along the Missouri River after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized unprecedented releases from reservoirs in the northern river basin all summer to deal with unexpectedly heavy rain in May and above-average mountain snowpack. Farmers in the Missouri Bootheel, meanwhile, saw their crops swamped when the Army Corps of Engineers exploded a levee to relieve water pressure on an upriver town in Illinois. The intentional breach sent water cascading over thousands of acres of prime farmland.

Missouri will receive about $49 million, of which $35 million will come from the watershed program and the rest from the Farm Service Agency's Emergency Conservation Program.

Harold Decker, assistant state conservationist for water resources in Missouri, said most of the watershed money will go toward clearing and redeveloping drainage ditches filled with silt and debris by flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

"Without that work, those systems aren't going to function," Decker said. "If ditches aren't draining properly, it retards plant growth and the drainage of the plants and lowers production."

Vilsack noted that natural disasters wreaked widespread, but varying, havoc in 2011.

"There have been years that have had more intensive damage in a particular geographic area, but what's unique about last year is that virtually every part of the country was affected," Vilsack said. "It was different in every part of the country. We've not seen tornadoes as devastating as last spring. Flooding on the Missouri River, because of the longstanding nature of the flooding — not a two- or three-week situation — was unique. Fires in the southwest part of the country were historic in magnitude. It's been a tough year."

Slightly more than $215 million of the aid comes from the Emergency Watershed Program, about $80 million will come from the Emergency Conservation Program and nearly $12 million is from the FSA's Emergency Forest Restoration Program. Texas, for instance, will receive nearly $6 million after wildfires charred the southern part of the state.

The watershed funds will go toward public safety and restoration efforts on private, public and tribal land, Vilsack said. Projects funded by that money will include removing debris from waterways, protecting eroded stream banks, reseeding damaged areas and, in some cases, purchasing floodplain easements on eligible land.

New York trails only Utah in the amount of watershed protection money received, at $37.8 million.

New York's money is earmarked for repairing erosion and other damage left behind by back-to-back late summer tropical storms Irene and Lee.

Dennis DeWeese, acting state conservationist with the conservation service in New York, said 51 communities have asked for assistance and damage assessments have been completed for 15. The agency's staff of 25, mostly engineers, had visited 160 sites by the end of last week and is continuing work that may extend into the Adirondacks.

One challenge, he said, will be asking already cash-strapped towns and villages to pay their shares to qualify for the federal money and begin design and construction.

"A lot of these municipalities are overwhelmed," DeWeese said.

In addition to flooding, 2011 was a big year for tornadoes, including record outbreaks in the South and a monster storm that leveled a large portion of Joplin, Mo.

Alabama is scheduled to get nearly $7 million in assistance for tornado recovery, followed by nearly $4 million in Georgia. Missouri, at the other end of the spectrum, is to receive only $130,000 to fix tornado damage to agricultural land.

Vilsack said the emergency money is being used to help agricultural interests beyond what is covered by crop insurance. He said the USDA paid out $8.6 billion in crop insurance payments last year, and $17.2 billion over the past three years.

Associated Press writer Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City and George M. Walsh in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.

State-by-state breakdown of disaster assistance being provided to 33 states and Puerto Rico from USDA emergency funds. Figures are provided by the USDA.

Alabama: $16,555,901

Alaska: $8,262,000

Arizona: $5,213,700

Arkansas: $8,018,280

Georgia: $4,411,850

Indiana: $195,827

Iowa: $10,820,000

Kansas: $2,200,000

Kentucky: $1,710,600

Maine: $810,000

Maryland: $231,000

Massachusetts: $6,470,000

Minnesota: $419,400

Mississippi: $5,465,098

Missouri: $50,073,773

Montana: $1,060,000

Nebraska: $10,869,950

New Hampshire: $443,000

New Jersey: $2,540,000

New York: $41,794,484

North Carolina: $4,631,000

Ohio: $3,139,400

Oklahoma: $5,266,795

Pennsylvania: $13,875,000

Puerto Rico: $2,265,000

Rhode Island: $6,453,300

South Dakota: $400,000

Tennessee: $10,106,601

Texas: $12,921,217

Utah: $60,268,801

Virginia: $1,240,000

Vermont: $8,714,250

Wyoming: $931,000

Total USDA Emergency Aid: $307,777,227

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