NEWFANE -- To serve a population of about 1,700 spread over 40 square miles, Newfane has budgeted approximately $1.3 million for this fiscal year.
But there is a much larger number hanging above the town. Officials estimate that Tropical Storm Irene left them with a $5 million bill, and they expect to spend years dealing with the complexities and uncertainties of the federal-reimbursement process.
"The ultimate impact on our town becomes really hard to determine," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said.
On one hand, Mack knows Newfane has come a long way since Irene's flooding on Aug. 28, 2011. Surveying the towns hardest-hit areas after the storm, "I thought, God, it's going to take months just to
In terms of fixing the town's most-basic infrastructure, that turned out to not be the case.
"I am amazed at how much progress has been made," Mack said. "It is stunning."
Some significant loose ends remain, however. That includes rebuilding the washed-out Hunter Brook Bridge, though officials cannot yet commit to a schedule for that project.
"We don't have a precise time frame," Mack said. "We have to get a design first."
The Selectboard also is wrangling with the future of Lynch Bridge, which had served just one property before the storm. Board members are exploring the idea of not rebuilding the span and instead making other town improvements with up to $455,220 in federal
But that is far from a given: The board needs to strike a deal with the affected property owner, receive town approval for buying the home and also gain the Federal Emergency Management Agency's endorsement of alternative uses for the cash.
Discussion of those two bridge projects at times must take a back seat to an even larger concern -- ensuring that the town receives every cent of available reimbursement from FEMA.
The task is daunting enough that the board has hired a consultant specializing in such matters.
"This is a massive amount of paper and a massive amount of work," Mack said. "It's really overwhelming."
Much is at stake. Newfane has borrowed heavily for storm recovery, and Mack said about $1.3 million has been reimbursed to the town so far: That consists of $600,000 from FEMA and another $700,000 in federal highway funds for Dover Road repairs.
Mack said that, between federal and state money, "we have reason to believe that all eligible expenses will be paid at 100 percent."
But he also acknowledges a degree of uncertainty, since FEMA officials make no guarantees. Even after reimbursement, there will be federal audits.
And some projects require layers of governmental money-shuffling. Case in point is Newfane's Green Iron Bridge, which is owned by the town but maintained by the state.
After Irene, state officials handled repairs.
"The state then sent us the bill, and we're now paying the bill and submitting it to FEMA for reimbursement," Mack said.
There is another aspect of Irene recovery that Mack believes has not received sufficient attention: The storm left large swaths of unpopulated but devastated land that remains a liability to a state that relies on natural beauty to draw visitors and second-home buyers.
Mack estimates that about 20 percent of Newfane still "looks like a disaster zone," and he wants to pursue grant money for
"This is of consequence to our ability to survive and flourish," he said.
Townwide issues aside, Newfane officials also are hearing regularly from individuals and families who are still reeling from Irene.
From her town clerk office on Route 30, Gloria Cristelli cites the cases of two families. First, she continues to work closely with Lance and Betty Lindgren, a Jenness Drive couple who have a severely disabled son.
Irene swept away a portion of their land, leaving an unstable stream bank and a dangerously exposed garage. And the Lindgrens have worried for their son's safety on the property.
But the couple's unique circumstance -- their home was not damaged -- and strict limitations on federal programs have led to the Lindgrens being rejected for all aid.
Cristelli has lost one appeal on behalf of the Lindgrens. She's now scheduled for a mediation session with federal officials and, if necessary, one more appeal.
"They simply have fallen through the cracks," Cristelli said. "There's got to be money somewhere."
She's also formed a working relationship with a three-generation family of 12 who had been residing in one Dover Road home before the flood. Family members initially had trouble finding housing and now are spread among three houses.
"They have problems meeting their obligations," Cristelli said. "So we're still working with them."
She added that the passage of time has, in some ways, made it more difficult to help flood victims.
"I think that people tend to get a bit complacent at this time -- you know, it's a year later and everybody's on their feet," she said.
Cristelli and Mack are well aware that Newfane is not alone, as many Vermont towns continue to deal with post-Irene issues.
But that does not change the fact that Newfane will be grappling with the storm's aftermath for a long time. Mack estimates 90 percent of his time as a town official is spent on Irene issues.
"It will be at least a year or two before flood recovery is not the top priority that towns like ours are dealing with," Mack said.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.