Flooded Utah towns going without federal relief

Mayor estimates $3 million in damages to the town but the agency usually requires more losses for aid.

(Cinder Player | Special to The Tribune) The southern Utah towns of Cedar City, Enoch, and Hanksville have been hit with at least six-foot flood waters, and community members there still feel the impacts of these floods days after experiencing these local disasters.

Last week, Hanksville saw flash floods as deep as six feet that wreaked havoc on homes, businesses, farms and even drowned 15 goat kids at a farm. Luckily, there were no fatalities.

The flood will cost around $3 million to clean up, according to Mayor Jeffren Pei. But while the damage is life-changing for many in the small town, it probably is not enough to get relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve talked to all the homeowners and the businesses about some help through FEMA, and I think we have to hit a threshold,” Mayor Jeffren Pei said. “Normally, they want a $4.2 million loss threshold [for an incident] just to be considered for application, and that’s not really a guarantee.”

To get residents help, Pei launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to pay for the town’s cleanup, with the focus now on removing mud from people’s homes and businesses. The fundraiser, which has a goal of $90,000, will help city residents immediately.

As of Wednesday, organizers of the online fundraisers were getting closer to their goal, with about $22,207 raised from 184 donors. Other donations have been sent to Lisa Wells, the town’s clerk and an emergency incident commander, who is recording the relief dollars for the town.

Hanksville is the third southern Utah town to experience extreme flooding this summer. In July and August, Cedar City and Enoch were inundated by six-foot waters and heavy mud, which required emergency declarations by the cities and Iron County. Both cities were denied any emergency FEMA funding that Hanksville is hoping to secure.

LaMiya Morrill, also an emergency incident commander for Hanksville, said that most of the damage happened outside the city, which will make FEMA’s loss threshold harder to meet.

“A lot of the hayfields and the power and the irrigation is outside of the city limits, but it is still part of our lives,” Morrill said. “It’s part of our community, but it’s not in the designated city limits, and so we can’t count any of that devastation, and we can’t use it toward trying to meet the goal” that FEMA requires.

Janna Wilkinson, Utah Division of Emergency Management’s State Mitigation and Recovery Manager, confirmed that the monsoon flooding in Cedar City and Enoch earlier this summer did not meet the FEMA thresholds.

“FEMA is a federal agency that can come in to deal with a certain scale of disaster,” Wilkinson said. “And so you know disasters are scaled up based on their size, and so there’s [disasters] that should be able to be handled at the local level. Others that should be able to be handled by the state, and then there are those that scale up to the level where they need federal intervention.”

When it comes to Hanksville’s flooding, Wilkinson said the losses were not as large as those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Magna earthquake of 2020 and the Wasatch Front spring windstorms of 2020.

Wilkinson added that the state is still accepting applications for FEMA public assistance from residents impacted by the earthquakes and windstorms. Both of those disasters, she points out, were far more costly than the flooding incidents in Cedar City, Enoch and now Hanksville.

Even though no emergency funds exist in Utah for recovery, Wilkinson’s division is on the ground in Hanksville assisting community members. She also advised businesses and homeowners to consider getting additional insurance policies for floods, including coverage offered under the National Flood Insurance Program, before disaster strikes.

“Homeowners insurance does not usually cover natural disasters,” Wilkinson warned. “You have to get a separate policy or an additional rider to cover a natural disaster, such as flooding or earthquake.”

Stanley Alvey, whose family operates about five businesses in the town, said that the family’s private insurance would not cover the damage from the floods.

One of the family’s businesses, the Whispering Sands Motel was gearing up for a busy fall season. Now, reservations for half its rooms are blocked until next year after flooding damaged bedding, carpet and interior walls.

“We haven’t really given much consideration to our businesses yet, because I think the bigger picture [is] we’re trying to focus more on the people in the town and getting them on their feet before we can focus on the economy,” Alvey said.