September 22, 2008 (Post-Tribune) -- The state won't know exactly how bad the flood damage was in Northwest Indiana for some time, but area residents and local officials aren't waiting for official numbers to declare the flood one of the worst disasters ever to hit Northwest Indiana.

"This one's by far the worst the history of our city has ever seen," said Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist. "Residents have been under water who have never been before."

Lake Station evacuated 120 houses and 80 mobile homes, some of which saw water levels reach the roofline. Another 200 homes had significant water in the basement.

Soderquist, who has been out in a boat taking pictures of waterlogged homes and documenting the damage, said the town will put together its own assessment of the cost of the damage over the next week.

Munster was the heaviest hit in the area, evacuating about 500 homes on the north end of town. Gary was the last to evacuate, clearing out homes near IUN and Ivy Tech on Wednesday and the Marshalltown neighborhood on Thursday.

"It's a bad flood. It's not something that's a little bit of wetness in somebody's basement," said Andy Miller, director of the state's Office of Disaster Recovery. "We're taking it very seriously. Where it settles out -- whether it's a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood, I don't know."

How large the cleanup tab will be can be tricky to guess, Miller said.

The home damage appears to be in the tens of millions of dollars, but the infrastructure damage is where the serious costs can ring up.

"When you get out and look at bridges and roads, that's when you really get the big numbers," Miller said.

Civil Air Patrol did aerial assessments of the area, and federal, state and local agencies were out assessing the damage on Thursday and Friday.

"Particularly in Lake County, it appears the level of major damage to homes is probably going to get to the threshold that will have us seek a declaration from the president," Miller said.

Receiving a federal disaster declaration will entitle area residents to much more government aid than they would receive under just the state disaster declaration.

With a federal declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will come in and set up one-stop shops where homeowners can apply for assistance, get help with their insurance claims, and other services.

FEMA would be able to offer cash grants up to $28,800, and the Small Business Administration would be able to offer loans up to $200,000.

The cost of flood damage to individual homeowners can vary wildly, based on the value of the home, the extent of the flooding and the coverage of the owner's insurance policy.

Stan Sims has been out working to help educate flood victims about the first things they need to do to get back on their feet.

Sims, the extension director for the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service office in Lake County, is also part of the national Extension Disaster Education Network.

He says an important thing homeowners should do is hire a contractor to assess their damage.

"I think it would be a reasonable thing to do, for sure," Sims said. "If a homeowner doesn't have a clue where to start, they probably should take the experience of a contractor to help him out."

During times of large-scale disaster, getting a qualified, reputable contractor to come look at your home can be a lengthy task. But it's worth the wait, because no insurance company will cover the expense of paying a fraudulent contractor for work never completed.

The national Red Cross has been hit hard this year by the Gulf Coast hurricanes, and the Northwest Indiana chapter has not been spared either, with January floods, August tornados and now more September rain.

"We're stretched to the limit right now in terms of our staffing, our resources, our equipment and supplies," said Gordon Johnson, executive director of the American Red Cross of Northwest Indiana.

The agency operated as many as six shelters over the weekend to shelter evacuees, and also had to feed them.

"We really do need financial resources," Johnson said, since the national Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund has spent a lot its resources on this year's hurricanes.

The local chapter depends heavily on the national Disaster Relief Fund in times of crisis. Nearly 70 percent of the $435,000 spent responding to the September 2006 flooding was from the national Disaster Relief Fund.