Clinton declares four tornado-damaged counties disaster areas

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Clinton on Wednesday declared several southern Minnesota counties disaster areas, freeing up federal money for recovery efforts under way following Sunday’s deadly tornadoes.
The declaration covers residents and businesses in Brown, Le Sueur, Nicollet and Rice counties.
Sunday evening twisters killed two people, injured at least 38 and destroyed or severely damaged 990 homes from Comfrey to Lonsdale.
“I think this was a federal disaster area at 5:20 on Sunday evening,” said Nicollet County Commissioner Jack Kolars in a phone interview from St. Peter. “We’re gratified that the president has declared it. It’s been a disaster area for three days and now we know officially. This city is virtually destroyed and now we have to rebuild.”
The federal assistance can include grants to help pay for temporary housing, minor home repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans also will be available to cover residential and business losses not fully covered by insurance.
Additionally, federal funds will go to state and affected local governments to pay 75 percent of the eligible cost for debris removal and emergency services.
Gov. Arne Carlson visited city officials Wednesday in St. Peter and Comfrey, two of the hardest hit places, to determine the cities’ immediate needs.
Teams of state and federal officials likely will have damage estimates by Friday. Carlson said he would like the Legislature to pass state funding for the tornado-ravaged towns by Monday. But if estimates aren’t specific enough by then, he said he may call a one-day special session to approve more state aid, which he said could come out of the state’s projected $1.9 billion surplus.
People in the disaster areas were also given an extension on filing state and federal income tax forms. The length of the extension was not known Wednesday, according to Nicollet County Emergency Management.
Meanwhile, recovery efforts continued Wednesday in St. Peter and Comfrey. The Salvation Army said more than 1,000 volunteers flooded into St. Peter by noon Tuesday, creating a bottleneck that left a surplus of volunteers waiting in buses. Officials in Comfrey would accept only 300 volunteers Wednesday due to the small size of the town.
Fifteen municipal utility companies worked to restore power to St. Peter’s 3,200 customers. Steve Downer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, said they hoped to have power restored to 1,000 homes by Wednesday night. The rest of the system could take weeks to rebuild, he said.
Comfrey hoped to have some electricity restored to undamaged homes by Wednesday night, according to Duane Hoeschen, the regional program coordinator for the Department of Public Safety’s division of emergency management.