A trickle of relief

Saturday March 23, 2013

One lesson local folks have taken to the bank following Tropical Storm Irene is that state and federal regulations are often confusing, contradictory and impenetrably dense.

That was especially true when it came to determining which recovery expenses were reimbursable through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds and the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Often, whether or not a homeowner or a town received money depended on a bureaucrat’s interpretation of federal and state regulations or standards.

Such was the case in Jamaica, where four Water Street homeowners were deemed ineligible for hazard mitigation funds because even though their homes were destroyed when Ball Mountain Brook overflowed its banks, because their properties were just outside of a federally recognized flood zone.

Fortunately, the Stratton Foundation has said it will help buy out the properties and the town is considering whether it will submit an application for CDBG funds to supplement the Foundation’s contribution.

In Townshend, the highway crew replaced a culvert on Dam Road that was destroyed by the West River, at a cost of $554,000. Though the town had been reimbursed for about $300,000 of the cost, it was told because of differences between state and federal regulations, wasn’t eligible for any more funding.

That’s a hearty cost for a town the size of Townshend, a cost it was trying to reconcile with its regular road budget of just more than $800,000.

But on Wednesday, Townshend got some good news.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont’s Congressional Delegation announced that FEMA has agreed to pay the full cost to replace the culvert.

While this only applies to the Townshend Dam Road culvert, the state hopes it could be a precedent that would allow dozens of other Vermont towns to qualify for funds to receive full reimbursement -- at 90 percent of project costs -- from FEMA for similar projects. A number of those projects have also been contested by FEMA but now could be appealed in light of this latest development.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch stated in a press release that FEMA’s decision was "a welcome change of heart."

Joe Flynn, the director of the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, called it "common sense."

At issue in this case was the fact Townshend replaced the old culvert with a bigger culvert, built to withstand flood waters that had washed out the previous one. But FEMA had said it would only pay for a replacement and not an upgrade.

"As a matter of federal policy, it makes no sense to use federal tax dollars to put back in place the same size culverts that just blew out," noted Leahy, Sanders and Welch. "If they didn’t survive the last flood, they aren’t likely to survive the next."

Vermont’s congressional delegation has repeatedly appealed to FEMA, asking it to find ways to bend its rules. In addition, Flynn and his staff coordinated with legal counsel in the Agency of Transportation to support Townshend’s appeal.

Just the same, FEMA qualified its decision so as not to give anyone else unreasonable hope.

"Even though the decision upheld FEMA’s position that this standard was not an eligible one, the ruling grants us a waiver to move forward with mitigation funding for this project and that’s a good step," said Mark Landry, FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer for Vermont.

We know how hard everyone has been working on the Irene Recovery, and that includes town and state officials, volunteers, regional planners, our congressional delegation and, yes, even the ground troops from FEMA.

And we also understand in this time of fiscal hardship, the federal government is continually on the lookout for ways to avoid shelling out money (unless, of course, you have a billion-dollar jet you want to sell to the Department of Defense).

We just wish the home and business owners, towns and the state didn’t have to jump through hoops and negotiate a maze of regulations to get disaster recovery assistance.

It seems in the big scheme of things, this is what we want our federal government to do: Help out those who have been struck down by disaster and not make it a journey worthy of Kafka.


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