A flood of red tape

Saturday December 8, 2012

It’s been more than a year since Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont, pummeling the Green Mountain State and leaving devastation in its wake. Houses and bridges were washed away, roads were destroyed, lives were lost and streets and basements were flooded with mud.

The destruction was breathtaking and many of us still have the images etched into our brains, as if it was a bad dream that just won’t go away. But for many people, Irene’s impacts were more than a bad dream; they are a reality they are living with to this day.

While the nation’s attention is focused on the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, people and municipalities in Vermont are still struggling to get out from under the detritus, both figurative and literal, left behind by Irene.

Sure, there are plenty of success stories in the news, such as the reconstruction of the Bartsonville Bridge, the cleanup along Flat Street in Brattleboro and the reconstruction of Dot’s in Wilmington.

But while FEMA has approved the buyouts of 81 of the 114 properties that were damaged or destroyed by flood waters, none of the homeowners have received any of the promised money. And in Jamaica, four property owners have been told they may not qualify for a buyout because though they were on the banks of Ball Mountain Brook, they were not in a designated FEMA flood plain.

A plan by the state to relocate the Vermont State Hospital is now on hold because FEMA recently determined it’s not eligible for "permanent relocation," a special designation that would have allowed the state to recoup 90 percent of the estimated $43 million cost.

It looks like FEMA’s red tap will also have an impact on plans to rebuild the state’s office complex in Waterbury, which is estimated at $139 million.

In towns around Windham County, work was done on bridges and culverts after an understanding was reached between town officials and FEMA evaluators on recompensation.

In many cases, after the work was done and the bill paid, towns have been told by going above and beyond replacement to actual mitigation, they might not get as much money as they thought. It seems state and local agencies came to the egregious conclusion that it made more sense to put in place improved structures that would withstand another Irene, rather than just duplicates of things that were there before.

That happened in Townshend, where road crews replaced a washed out pipe culvert on Dam Road that with a hardier box culvert, which cost about $100,000 more than a replacement pipe.

"What we learned is that FEMA was not reimbursing towns for the highest standard of repair," Sue Minter, Irene Recovery Officer, told Vermont Public Radio in October. "We have appealed that decision, because we believe we must build back stronger. We believe it is FEMA’s mission to support policies to mitigate future hazards, and of course, reduce future costs."

For its part, FEMA said the state is not applying a uniform standard across all of its recovery projects.

"Now the state is asserting that FEMA should pay for the upgrade, in this case for a culvert in Townshend, because the upgrade is required by the Agency of Natural Resources stream alteration permit. But FEMA has determined that the ANR standards are discretionary and not uniformly applied," David Mace, FEMA spokesman, told VPR. "And therefore FEMA will not pay to upgrade the Dam Road culvert as requested because of the fact that the standards are discretionary."

So now Townshend is left holding the bag.

With town selectboards in the midst of negotiating their budgets for the next fiscal year, we hope FEMA and ANR can get on the same page and figure out how best to solve this problem.

We learned Friday that President Obama plans to ask for more than $60 billion for post-Sandy recovery, and that is all well and good, but we hope the folks in New Jersey and New York can learn from our lesson that when it comes to government bureaucracy, sometimes the red tape is worse than the flood waters.


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