By Russell Hood The Webster Progress-Times
WALTHALL — Webster County officials accepted a check last week to help offset costs of recovery from the massive tornado that swept through the area 15 months ago. Contract employee Bill Barnett of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality presented the $303,673.90 check to the Board of Supervisors on July 26.
The funds are part of a grant program through MDEQ to cover Webster County’s portion of eligible costs related to public debris removal after the April 2011 tornado destroyed or heavily damaged timber, houses and other structures in the eastern part of the county, including East Webster High School in Cumberland.
Webster County completed $2.4 million worth of debris cleanup working through FEMA, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and H20 Partners, a private consulting firm. The county has also paid off a bank loan that helped cover the costs.
Following last April’s tornadoes and flooding of the Mississippi River in May, MDEQ estimates that about 40,000 dump trucks of debris had to be processed and collected throughout Mississippi’s affected counties.
Reimbursement for eligible debris collection and removal is part of FEMA’s Public Assistance program with local governments usually responsible for 12.5 percent of eligible debris costs.
FEMA reimbursed 75 percent of the county’s expenses and MEMA provided $303,202 in June as the state’s 12.5 percent assistance in matching funds.
Webster County is one of about 60 communities that MDEQ is presenting grants totaling more than $1 million to cover their reimbursement costs.
“The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality works closely with communities after disasters to assist with their on-the-ground debris issues,” MDEQ Executive Director Trudy Fisher said when the town of Smithville was presented its first reimbursement grant in April. An EF-5 tornado destroyed much of the town the same day as the one that struck Webster County last year.
“In doing so we became aware of the financial burden being borne by communities for debris removal while coping with a whole host of other issues. We are pleased to support Gov. (Phil) Bryant’s recovery efforts by finding grant funds and being a small part of easing the financial burden of … communities still recovering from the devastating disasters of 2011.”
Barnett told supervisors that two things stood out when he closed out Webster County’s debris disposal site last August. One was that four months after the tornado, he could still see tremendous damage to private property.
“I realized how hard you had been hit,” he said, adding that timber damage here was worse than in Smithville.
Additionally, Barnett said he was struck with deep concern of how the county would cope with the financial cost of cleanup. “The size of this check is a testament to the severity of the damage you suffered and of all you’ve accomplished,” he said. Webster County’s check, according to Barnett, is the largest MDEQ grant amount in the state.
Supervisors pointed out that Webster County could have owed $600,000 without the financial assistance from the state.
“This is a blessing to Webster County,” board President Pat Cummings said. “This is a prayer answered.”