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Flood relief likely; tornado relief iffy

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ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators are on call to vote on flood-relief funding Monday, but it remains unclear whether communities affected by a June 17 tornado outbreak - including Wadena - also can expect help.

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Even the flood action is tentative, depending on whether the federal government declares southern Minnesota a disaster area yet this week.

Flooding brought on by record and near-record rainfalls began on Sept. 22 across southern Minnesota, especially the southeast. Rivers are receding, but some remain out of their banks.

"Our fellow Minnesotans are suffering and in need of swift action by their government at this time," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "Completing this legislative work will aid in that effort."

The afternoon special session is set to begin at 1 p.m. Monday. However, Pawlenty's office reported that if a federal disaster declaration does not come by Friday, the Republican governor may be forced to call the session later.

The session is needed to appropriate state money to fill in where federal funds stop.

When Pawlenty and legislative leaders met last week about flooding, they said there was no need to include tornado relief.

However, Pawlenty spokesman Bruce Gordon said discussions are on-going about the need to approve state funds for tornado-affected communities such as Wadena.

While many communities were affected by the June 17 tornado outbreak, Wadena was worst hit. Leaders there want the state to borrow money to replace a community center destroyed by the tornado, but Gordon said the governor's office is not talking about doing that in the special session.

Wadena's state senator is one community leader who wants the special session to help that area, too.

"My efforts are in no way designed to distract from the equally serious natural disaster that has stuck communities in the form of rising waters," Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said in a letter to Senate leaders. "It's simply a request that we take this opportunity to consider the relief needs throughout the state, and also consider help for the homes, farms, businesses and public infrastructure damaged or destroyed on June 17 as well."

Skogen said that when lawmakers met in the 2007 flood special session, they also included funding to recover from the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed by the June 17 Wadena tornado.

In southern Minnesota, a preliminary flood damage estimate for public infrastructure is $64.1 million. If a federal declaration is made, as state officials expect, Washington would pay 75 percent of the costs.

Pawlenty said he expects lawmakers to finish their work Monday. Legislative leaders said they plan to hold committee hearings, perhaps before the session convenes, to get public input.

Pawlenty wants federal flood aid for 21 counties. If that aid comes through, it can be used to remove debris and repair or replace damaged public facilities.

The governor also seeks federal help for individuals in 11 counties.

Federal aid could be sought for more counties as officials continue to assess damage.

Aid could flow to individual homeowners, businesses and farmers, generally in the form of low-interest loans. A federal disaster declaration also could open the door for unemployment assistance and crisis counseling.

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