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Minnesota's constitutional officers on Wednesday approved a 30-day extension of a state emergency declaration for seven northwestern Minnesota counties experiencing flooding. The panel includes Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, from left, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau and Attorney General Lori Swanson. Scott Wente photo

Pawlenty seeks speedy federal disaster aid

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ST. PAUL - State officials are ramping up their Red River Valley flood assistance and asking the federal government for similar efforts.

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As northwestern Minnesota communities fought rising floodwater amid rain and a snow storm, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday sought an expedited federal disaster declaration.

Pawlenty sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for a speedy disaster declaration for the Red River Valley region. The governor said it is clear there will be enough damage to trigger federal aid, which could include disaster unemployment assistance, small business disaster loans and low-interest loans for flooded farmers.

"I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary," Pawlenty wrote.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have been "informally" involved in the region, Pawlenty said, but a federal disaster declaration will broaden their participation.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson met Wednesday with Obama and North Dakota's congressional delegation to discuss the flooding.

"President Obama listened to everything we told him and he assured us that we would have whatever assistance we needed," Peterson said. "He understands the severity of the situation."

The state is stepping up its relief efforts as local communities along the Red River fight back rising floodwaters.

Pawlenty and the state's other four constitutional officers approved a 30-day extension of a state emergency declaration, and the state's Emergency Operations Center in downtown St. Paul was "fully activated."

By Wednesday 388 Minnesota National Guard soldiers were activated to the region, Pawlenty said, and more deployments are possible.

There are 290 soldiers in Clay County, 50 in Norman County and another 45 in Wilkin County. Those in Wilkin County will complete their work by Saturday and could be sent elsewhere to help fight flooding.

"We're putting everything we've got into the flood fight in northwestern Minnesota," Pawlenty told reporters.

The state disaster declaration is for Clay, Kittson, Marshall, Norman, Polk, Traverse and Wilkin counties.

The National Guard, State Patrol and Health, Agriculture, Transportation and Natural Resources departments are among those taking part in increased state involvement.

The state Emergency Operations Center is coordinating state response to flooded communities' requests for equipment, including sandbags, generators and helicopters. The National Guard, State Patrol and a host of state agencies are involved.

"They continue to come in on an hourly basis," Public Safety official Dennis Smith said of local requests. All of the 52 requests filed by Wednesday had been met, he added.

The combination of flooding and blowing snow prompted the state Transportation Department to close portions of northwestern Minnesota highways and warn drivers that fluctuating water levels make it difficult to predict whether water will flood a roadway.

Pawlenty toured Moorhead and Breckenridge earlier this week and said he would return to the region in the coming days. Pawlenty said Red River Valley communities are better prepared for flooding than they were five years ago, largely because of their experience with the floods of 1997.

Since the 1997 floods, millions of dollars have been spent on flood mitigation efforts in northwestern Minnesota.

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