County commissioners say they are confident that the federal government will release emergency funding to repair or resurface county roads, many sections of which were devastated by prolonged sub-freezing conditions and excessive rain that has swept through north Alabama over the past month.
A field representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) toured Cullman County Thursday and Friday, observing extensive road damage as part of a larger effort to determine whether the region will qualify as a federal disaster area and thereby become eligible for the accompanying emergency funding.
If the damage in Cullman — combined with that in neighboring counties — totals more than $5 million, the entire affected area will meet the federal government’s threshold for disaster relief funding.
Associate county commissioner Doug Williams said the chances of that are very good.
“The FEMA representative went around and saw the damage — not just here but in several counties — and we have more than enough damage to qualify for federal emergency money,” said Williams. “We feel very confident.”
Cullman county was one of many stops along the FEMA damage assessment itinerary in north Alabama, and the field representatives had seen enough by the time they reached Cullman to know what their assessment was likely to be before they had even started, according to associate commissioner Wayne Willingham.
“These guys were really good and they understood our problem,” said Willingham. “They got here Thursday afternoon and just rode around for about two hours before telling us, ‘We’ve seen enough — ya’ll go ahead and start bidding (for repair work).’ They’d been to some other counties already and they knew it was bad everywhere.”
Because road damage has been so widespread, the county will augment its road crews’ efforts with work awarded to private contractors, said Willingham.
“We’re going to try to start getting a bid list together Monday, and we will be bidding the work out by phases,” he said. “The FEMA people told us they understood that we were still going to be having damage before all this is over, and that we could go ahead and start addressing our problem now. We just have to document everything so we can include it in the total package.”
Williams said the county will have to wait and see whether some roads will receive funding that allows for complete resurfacing work, explaining that FEMA money comes with some stipulations regulating the nature and extent of work that can be funded.
“There are going to be some cases where the county will need to wait for the federal people to come back and tell us what they can authorize, and what this or that money can be used for,” said Williams. “Asphalt work is always better, and holds up longer, if we have the funding for it, but it will take some time before we know how much of that will be funded.”
Willingham expressed optimism that bid work would have some secondary benefits locally.
“It’s actually going to be a boost to our economy, because we’re going to have to put a lot of work out for bid to so many different contractors who cover different aspects of the road construction process. It will involve a lot of jobs.”
County commission Chairman James Graves said the county will submit final damage estimates to FEMA through the governor’s office, and that all federal disbursements must pass through Montgomery.
“We get the financial statistics together and (Cullman Emergency Management Authority director) Phylllis Little compiles it. Then the county commission will sign off on it and submit it to the governor’s office,” Graves explained. “The entire multi-county area can be grouped together in a single disaster event, butt when the money comes in, it is given to counties individually through the governor’s office and administered by the state transportation department.”
That process can take time, said Willingham.
“We are all asking people to be patient, because the repairs are coming,” he said. “
“Most people I’ve talked to have been very understanding. They see the damage where they are, but then they drive out through other places in the county and they see how widespread it is — nobody is immune to the weather.”