When Ernie Marinko moved into his home in Hinsdale, Montana, in 2007 to retire, he never thought he’d be in danger of losing it.
Marinko and his wife, Valerie, moved into their 1971 home on Third Avenue North with about 150 feet of backyard space until it met the bank of the Milk River. It wasn’t until October 2019 when the Marinkos noticed that the bank was giving way dangerously close to their home.
About 6 feet of land now separates the river bank from the northeast corner of their home. Since October, another foot of land had given way.
Hoping for some help, Marinko, a veteran who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, called multiple veteran organizations and reached out to Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte.
Marinko also got into contact with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation where they advised sloping the bank, which would relieve some pressure and keep more land from breaking off. The couple spent a few thousand dollars to slope the bank, but it wasn’t long until more of the bank gave way. Neighbors who live on either side of the Marinkos home haven’t lost as much land.
Because the Marinkos’ home is so close to the waterway, it is also at risk of flooding even though it is located outside of a mapped floodplain.
After looking for solutions, Valley County DES coordinator Rick Seiler assisted Marinko in finishing an application for funds through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“We’re trying to pay things off and get ready for retirement, but here, we’re coming up with about a $160,000 bill that we don’t know how we’re going to get it handled,” Marinko said.
The grant provides funds for long-term hazard mitigation measures following a major disaster declaration, which in this case was the Montana Flooding Disaster Declaration on May 24, 2019.
The grant may pay about 75% of eligible costs, and is used to reduce the loss of life and property to natural disasters. A person may not apply directly to the program, but a community, and in this case Valley County, can sponsor and apply on their behalf.
The grant offers Marinko options, including FEMA buying the home, demolishing his home and building a new one somewhere else, or moving his home to another piece of land. He decided to move his home and bought land between Malta and Saco, Montana.
The grant application process started last October, and can usually take up to a year to complete, according to Sara Hartley, mitigation supervisor for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services in an email. Extensive environment or engineering concerns can prolong the application process.
“Due to the imminent likelihood of the land sliding away from the home, this sub-application was prioritized,” Hartley said.
Montana DES staff reviewed the application for required materials before it was sent to FEMA Region 8, which reviews the application again and approves the grants. A few documents were still needed earlier in May before it was sent to FEMA Region 8.
For some counties, it’s the first time local DES coordinators have applied for this grant.
“Everyone has an interpretation of what the questions mean, so sometimes we have to get to those specifics and it takes a little bit of time, especially when a county or homeowner may not have done this before,” said Mike Hillenburg, FEMA Hazard Mitigation branch chief.
FEMA Region 8 spokesperson Lynn Kimbrough said that the application arrived at the office on Monday, and hopes that the review process will be completed by early next week. Usually, that process can take up to 45 days.
Kimbrough noted that the application is being met with urgency, but not at the expense of other applications in the queue.
"In Ernie's perspective, he's looking at it like he's in a pickle, and we understand that," Hillenburg said. "But it's also that county stepping up and saying, this is something we can help mitigate not only for Ernie, but for others in the future."
Abel Moving and Rigging Inc. is a building moving company that often serves the Missoula area. Owner Ernie Otoupalik said that the company has moved about four houses at risk of falling into the Clark Fork River over the last four years.
If rivers are too close to a home, they're impossible to move, Otoupalik said, so it's important for agencies to streamline grant processes. Crews have moved homes that have received FEMA grants in the past.
The course of a river can change dramatically in a short period of time, and moving homes can be dangerous, he said.
"It's critical that they don't wait too long," Otoupalik said.
If the application is approved, a review for environmental and historic preservation will be conducted at the home’s new site, and hopefully money can be granted.
Once the home is moved, a deed restriction will be placed on the land by the river so that no one can build on it.
The novel coronavirus has made things a little trickier for Montana DES and FEMA Region 8, but Hillenburg said that he doesn’t believe it has slowed the process of moving mitigation grants forward.
Employees have experienced increased workloads within Montana DES and FEMA, which is a common occurrence with all state and federal agencies during this time.
Some staff within the mitigation office have volunteered to work for the organization’s coronavirus response, including helping provide funding to state, tribal and local governments to purchase personal protective equipment and the construction of temporary medical facilities.
“We’ve spread out the workload from there, but I think we’ve continued to be successful in moving things forward quickly,” Hillenburg said.
If things work out, Marinko and his wife can retire and enjoy the area's common leisure activities like fishing in the Nelson Reservoir and visiting the Sleeping Buffalo Resort.
“We just wanted to find a place where we could set down,” Marinko said. “I enjoy fishing, so when I can get through this problem and retire from the school system where I’m working right now as a clerk, I can easily get in my pickup and go over to the lake and go fishing.”
Marinko’s wife taught as an elementary school teacher for more than 30 years and Marinko worked for the Montana Army National Guard for 20 years and served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
Marinko’s job as a clerk for Hinsdale Public School will help make ends meet as they try to move their home.
If the grant isn’t approved and or if the home can’t be moved, Marinko said that they’ll have to figure it out.