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Lawmakers pave way for state flood relief

As a part of a legislative delegation, Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, and Senator Thomas Bakk, DFL-Cook, minority leader of the Minnesota Senate, survey the flood damage on Vermillion Street in Thomson on Wednesday afternoon. Clint Austin | Forum Communications

A special session appears to be a matter not of if, but when.

Minnesota state legislative leaders from both parties toured the Duluth and Carlton County area Wednesday to view damage from last week's flood and express support for a special session to pay for flood relief.

"It's obvious that ... you've got a lot of damage here," Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said during a news conference in Thomson Township, which was devastated by the flooding and is still closed to the public. "I would believe that in the not-too-distant future there's probably going to be a legislative session, a special session, to deal with this."

Senjem and other members of the legislative delegation said that estimates of the damage are needed before a session date is set.

As the delegation held the news conference, 54-year-old Kim Price sat on a chunk of upended sidewalk and watched. A few feet away, the home Price grew up in stood in ruins. Her parents lived there until last week, but are now living with Price's daughter.

"The assessor said (the home) is a 100 percent loss," Price said. "We have no answers yet. They don't have insurance. They were on a fixed income. They don't have money for this. ... They would like to stay here somehow."

Price said she has terminal breast cancer, and she wants to see her parents move back into their home before she dies.

That's why Price said she hopes the legislators' words on Wednesday were more than just words.

"They're on TV, then they get more votes because they're here for the flood victims, but then nothing ever happens sometimes," Price said. "I'm not being mean, but I really hope something comes out of this."

State officials are still trying to arrive at total damage amounts. Initial estimates were of 1,173 damaged parcels in Carlton County alone, said Drew Digby, a spokesman for Carlton County, but he said the system used to count that number got so overwhelmed that it's been put on hold.

"So we're much higher than that," Digby said.

What legislators might be willing to pay for during a special session is up in the air.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said he'll ask for money for infrastructure repair in Carlton County, as well as a new Moose Lake high school.

In addition to the significant flood damage sustained by the school, which was surrounded by water, the building has been out of compliance with fire codes for years, Lourey said.

"It's too much to ask for locals (to pay for that)," Lourey said. "We have to ask, is it really worth the money to put that school back in shape, or would it be better for the state to intervene?"

Senjem said the state would focus on paying for public infrastructure, but stopped short of saying he'd support rebuilding structures like schools.

"I'm not sure we've had a situation like that, but we'd certainly deal with it from a standpoint of a public discussion," he said.

Asked if the state might also look at money for private properties damaged by the flood, Senjem said, "We've not in the past. That would be a new venue for us."

Ultimately, it's up to Gov. Mark Dayton to call a special session, which he indicated he would do during a tour of flood-ravaged areas in Carlton County on Tuesday, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Dayton's press secretary, Katharine Tinucci, said a special session is "certainly a possibility," but the governor's office is waiting for a disaster declaration from the federal government, which must be requested by the governor. She said that request should be submitted soon.

For Thompson residents like Ginger Kulaszewicz, help can't come fast enough. Her front yard was washed away by the flood, with her front steps now in her back yard.

As she watched the news conference Wednesday, she said the legislative leaders might bring the answers to her prayers for financial help.

"Right now, that's all I can do is just pray and hope something good will come from this," she said.