A 'Daunting' recovery from Irene continues in Newfane


NEWFANE -- There is a front doorstep with two red railings at 5 Hickey Road. But the remainder of the lot is bare save for weeds and debris at the edge of the gouged-out Rock River -- all tell-tale signs of Tropical Storm Irene's devastation on Aug. 28, 2011.

But the remainder of the lot is bare save for weeds and debris at the edge of the gouged-out Rock River -- all tell-tale signs of Tropical Storm Irene's devastation on Aug. 28, 2011.

"I remember seeing the house going down Dover Road -- the top of the house," said Newfane Selectboard member Chris Druke, surveying the scene on a recent afternoon.

The Hickey Road property and the nearby construction of Hunter Brook Bridge are just a few examples of the work that remains in Newfane two years after Irene-fueled floodwaters roared through the town.

While many towns have moved on, Newfane still is mired in rebuilding projects, proposed buyouts and reimbursement negotiations.

"I would say we are roughly in the middle and not anywhere approaching the end of recovery," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said. "It's daunting."

Mack acknowledges that Newfane has come a long way since Irene struck, tearing away houses and bridges and washing out roads during a day of torrential rains.

"On the one hand, we have made enormous progress, and we've gotten a huge amount of help from several avenues including the state government and the federal government," he said.

But he is quick to add that, "on the other hand, there's a tremendous amount left to do."

Every Selectboard meeting includes talk of Irene-related work. The most prominent projects recently are the reconstruction of Hunter Brook and Lynch bridges, both of which were destroyed by the storm.

Taken together, the projects represent nearly $1 million in construction costs. And they also are emblematic of the town's struggles to recover from Irene.

Hunter Brook is under way, but Lynch Bridge is not. Druke said a host of technical issues have delayed the latter project, and deadlines related to environmental regulations -- crews must be out of the river by the end of October -- are rapidly approaching.

"The concern is the amount of time we have," Druke said. "Decisions must be made very, very shortly. There's just no way around it."

There also are lingering concerns that the federal government may not fully reimburse the town for the new Lynch Bridge because it is 15 feet longer than the original.

The same is true for Hunter Brook, though to a lesser degree; that span will be three feet longer to bridge a flood-widened Rock River.

Navigating state and federal regulations and following the necessary steps for disaster-funding reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is "far more complicated in terms of what's required of a municipality than a small selectboard is able to handle," Mack said.

"It turns out to be very complicated process and arduous, and vastly time-consuming and draining," he said.

All of those words might describe the work undertaken this year by Druke, who has been quietly logging countless hours behind the scenes to work through the details of FEMA-related issues for the town.

That includes the bridge projects as well as five potential property buyouts.

"She has just done a marvelous job of guiding us through the process," Mack said. "I could not do my job if not for the work that she's doing."

The buyouts -- consisting of the Hickey Road property, a home on Stratton Hill Road and three parcels on Dover Road -- each are in various stages of a long, technical process that involves the federal, state and town governments as well as the affected property owners.

The idea is that federal money will be used to demolish heavily damaged structures that have been deemed eligible for the program. In the end, the town will hold deeds for those properties, which must remain undeveloped in perpetuity.

One buyout may be complete within 30 days, Druke said. But she added that "it will be next year before they're all done."

"You have to manage this very tightly," Druke said. "A lot of people don't understand what's going on with this, and I'm fully aware of why they don't."

But the owner of Druke Insurance Agency also says she appreciates why the buyout processes and FEMA's reimbursement guidelines must be so detailed and stringent.

She compares those guidelines to an insurance policy that covers some types of damage and not others.

"I can clearly understand the setup. Because of what I do, I understand it," Druke said.

Newfane officials also understand that, even as the heavy lifting of bridge construction and buyout negotiation continues, Irene's impact on the area's scenic beauty cannot be ignored.

Parts of the town still look like disaster zones. So a contractor soon will be distributing a "grubbings" mixture that eventually will host plantings in the public right of way along Dover Road.

The project is mostly state-funded, and Mack believes such work is critical to Newfane's long-term economic recovery.

"It's not just, ‘This needs to be pretty because we'd like it to be pretty,'" he said. "It is the beauty of our area that attracts people to come here."

Even when all bridges are built, all grubbings spread and each buyout closed out, officials expect that the town still will be grappling with reimbursement and audits.

That means the final financial impact of Irene won't be clear for some time.

"The consequences of it will be felt in our tax rates for years and years to come," Mack said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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