MUNSTER | Gov. Mitch Daniels rode by boat Tuesday to tour the areas hardest hit following two days of steady rain that left scores of Munster residents up to their chests in water.
Daniels started the day in Chesterton, then flew on to Munster by helicopter, landing at the Munster High School football field shortly before 10:30 a.m. and declaring Lake and Porter counties a disaster area.
Dressed in jeans and a green Army fatigue shirt and cap, Daniels addressed 200-plus Munster adults and children at the high school auditorium, saying he's learned a lot about dealing with natural disasters like storms and flooding in the last couple of years.
"I am seeing this time and again. I was surprised at the number of people who lost IDs as a result of this flooding," he said. "We're going to break our backs to try and be as quick about getting you the help you need."
Daniels said the disaster declaration will pave the way for money to the counties. He referred to rain that ravaged parts of Indiana in August, saying checks were in the hands of people "nine days" after the first raindrop fell.
"We're going to try and move just as fast to put things right here," Daniels said.
The governor said state officials would put in place a "one-stop" shop where residents will be able to get assistance on anything from insurance to food stamps at one location.
He said officials will begin the process of tallying up the damage and counting every house and every vehicle with damage. He suggested residents help by making sure those tallies are complete.
Daniels praised local agencies, first responders such as the Munster police and fire departments, and the local utility department.
Munster resident John Whiting asked the governor how will authorities prioritize who gets help first. Whiting said he hopes that is done by the amount of damage people had from the rain.
"My house is gone. I hope the system is set up where people who have the worst damage receive assistance before someone who has less damage," he said.
Daniels admitted Whiting's question was a good one and said no decisions have been made.
"We're going to talk to the local people about how to set it up," Daniels responded. "I know it's going to be a hassle as we go through this process, but we're going to do everything we can to reduce that for you. We've learned from every natural disaster we've had, and we're learning from this one, too."
Joe Wainscott, Indiana Homeland Security director, said the federal assistance is a process and will take some time to complete. He said the government will be looking to make sure that people meet the thresholds set up by law.
He said damage assistance experts would come out to review the area. Wainscott said eventually it will have to be approved by the president before checks get to the people.
Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Munster native and 1988 graduate of Munster High School, was at Munster High School with the governor, but he toured the area separately.
Rokita said later he was never prouder to be a Mustang than he was when he saw neighbors helping neighbors and he read about members of the high school football and baseball teams and other students helping residents.
"I think the governor set the bar when people began receiving checks nine days after the first drop of rain started in August, and I hope we can see that same turn around here," Rokita said.