FEMA should support Vermont towns in building back stronger

Friday December 21, 2012

In a recent published opinion piece, the lead FEMA Official in Vermont stated "there appears to be a misperception among some in the public that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to pay for larger culverts. This is simply not true." (Dec. 2, Times Argus). Unfortunately, far from being a misperception, this is precisely the situation that towns across Vermont are currently confronting as they receive news that FEMA will not pay for the larger culverts and bridges that they must build to meet state standards intended to protect against future hazards.

The toll from Tropical Storm Irene was high: 225 Vermont towns were impacted by Irene, with 90 municipal bridges and 963 town culverts damaged statewide. Small Vermont towns heroically managed crisis after crisis: families lost homes, farmers lost land, businesses lost buildings and municipalities lost infrastructure. From the early days of the recovery, Governor Shumlin declared that Vermont would "build back stronger than Irene found us," including rebuilding transportation infrastructure in a manner that will reduce the risk of damage from future flooding.

Unfortunately, FEMA is rejecting its obligation to fund the full cost for town infrastructure repair projects that incorporate pre-disaster state and federal standards for stream crossings. Our state Public Assistance Office receives continuous inquiries from frustrated towns, facing serious financial straits, due to this situation.

Due in part to FEMA's narrow reading of its rules, in the past some towns have replaced sub-standard structures after past flood events rather than replacing with more robust structures that can withstand future storms. Take the Northeast Kingdom town of Charleston, where the same culvert has been blown out three times in three separate floods. In Northfield, a culvert replacement funded by FEMA blew out the same year (2011). In both cases and many others, FEMA has only funded replacement of the same inferior structure. And if a culvert is blown out but not destroyed, the town must put the same inadequate pipe back in -- even when it is sure to fail again.

Irene showed us what happens when our culverts and bridges are inadequate: the high volume flow washes out our roads, cuts off our communities, and puts our homes and businesses at risk. The standards for repairing bridges and culverts established by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the United States Army Corps of Engineers related to the size and type of culverts and bridges were in place when Tropical Storm Irene arrived. They were developed by experienced river scientists and engineers to ensure that all of the water, sediment, and debris that comes roaring down a brook or river following a heavy rain goes through, not around or over, a culvert or bridge.

Our current state and federal codes include requirements to build structures to withstand future disasters. This is the same common sense principle underlying FEMA's guiding statute, the Stafford Act, (named after Vermont's U.S. Senator Robert Stafford), which authorizes FEMA to pay for the cost of replacing inadequately designed bridges and culverts with ones that will stand up to future flood events, as long as the community installs them according to a consistently applied set of federal, state, or local pre-disaster standards.

The state of Vermont is now challenging FEMA's refusal to pay for culvert and bridge repairs that meet eligible state and federal standards aimed at reducing future risks. These repeated decisions by FEMA to disallow Vermont ANR and United States Corps of Engineers standards are also inconsistent with other relevant federal laws and policies. The Federal Highway Administration understands what FEMA does not: in both disaster and non-disaster times, the Federal Highway Administration helps fund bridges and culverts on state highways that will better withstand future disasters.

The state of Vermont is committed to helping towns get fair compensation from FEMA. The appeals process established by FEMA requires Vermont communities, and the state, to appeal first to the FEMA Region One Office in Boston, and then to FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Vermont will take our appeals to Congress if necessary. With the help of senators Leahy and Sanders and Congressman Welch, we intend to make our case that FEMA should follow the letter and purpose of its guiding statute and its own regulations. Vermont's communities should not have to bear the costs of doing what the law -- and common sense -- requires.

Vermonters support being frugal with our federal tax dollars -- and being frugal in this instance means installing the right type and size of culverts and bridges. The long term savings of doing this work properly to mitigate against future loss far outweighs short term costs. If towns are supported to do the job right this time, we may not have to ask FEMA for reimbursement next time.

Sue Minter is the Irene recovery officer for the state of Vermont.


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