ST. LOUIS — The name has a bureaucratic ring to it — the Interagency Levee Task Force. But advocates say the group is helping victims of last year's Midwestern floods recover more quickly and setting the tone for future flood events.
The task force met Tuesday in St. Louis. It is made up of officials from federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with local and state leaders in the five states hit hard by the 2008 flood — Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers said the task force provides "one-stop shopping" for levee districts, homeowners and others by determining the agency best-suited to help them.
In past floods, those seeking help had to figure it out themselves. A flood-impacted business owner might start with a trip to city hall or the county courthouse, then call upon state and federal officials. It was often a frustrating journey.
Walsh cited the example of a levee district owner trying to repair a pump house. "Is it a federal issue, a state issue or up to the owner of the pump house?" Walsh asked. "The same thing for a homeowner. If you wanted a buyout, who do you go to?"
The task force was formed immediately after the flood that began in June 2008. The flood was the worst on record in some parts of Iowa, notably Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The high water on the Mississippi River fell just short of record 1993 levels at several towns north of St. Louis.
Officials wanted to avoid a repeat of the aftermath of the 1993 flood and after Hurricane Katrina, when many were critical of the government response.
"I think some of that came from locals and how they felt the federal and state agencies were doing in being responsive to their needs," said Bruce Munholand, a Corps of Engineers program manager in St. Louis and a member of the task force.
"They said, 'There's got to be a better way.'"
Now, the person or group impacted by the flood approaches any government entity and the information is passed on to the task force.
"As the applications come in, we address them as a group," said Hank DeHaan, a program manager for the Corps' office in Rock Island, Ill. "We don't leave that table until we have an answer."
Walsh said the new system has worked to speed up repairs — all but two of the levees damaged in the 2008 flood have been fixed, though some work remains on infrastructure such as pumps and pipes. Now that the task force is in place, the government response to the next big flood should be even faster, officials said.
"The big key is making sure those communication channels are open," Munholand said.