Former Jamaica homeowners updated on Irene buyout process

Wednesday December 5, 2012

JAMAICA -- The four homeowners who lost their entire homes in a flood during Tropical Storm Irene received an update Tuesday on the future of their properties.

"It's been a struggle," said Tracy Payne. "But, I have hope."

Payne went from owning her house at 317 Water Street to renting a place in Boston that costs her $1,500 a month.

She had bought the house in September of 2010 and lived in it for six months until Irene came and took it away. She had gutted the house, hung the ceiling and painted the whole house. Not being able to enjoy the fruit of her labors has been frustrating, Payne told the Reformer.

"It was the most charming place to live. I had wonderful neighbors."

Her residence was one of four homes on Water Street, near the Depot Street Bridge, that was washed down the West River by the Irene flood waters.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Jamaica Selectboard met with FEMA officials and other interested parties to discuss potential buyouts of the properties destroyed in Irene. Since the town had put in applications for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, there has been concern over the homeowners' eligibility for the program.

The special meeting took place to discuss alternative routes to getting buyouts for the homeowners, whether or not FEMA approves their applications, which were submitted in February.

"We all had big houses," said David Kaneshiro, another homeowner whose house was destroyed in Irene. "It's all imagination now."

Kaneshiro told the Reformer that this was the only case of a row of houses being completely destroyed in Vermont during the storm.

The homes on Water Street that Irene destroyed were all outside of a FEMA flood zone map. So, although there hasn't been a definite answer about the homeowners' eligibility, the FEMA officials wanted to inform the Selectboard and the homeowners that there is a chance that the homes will not meet requirements for HMGP buyouts.

Homeowners had assumed that they were located in a flood zone because their homes were along the Bald Mountain Stream, which had seen an earlier disaster in 1976. But because the homes weren't in a designated flood zone, FEMA won't automatically buy out the properties. Regulations for applicants who were not included on the map must prove to be "price beneficial" and have significant documentation to become eligible for HMGP buyouts, according to FEMA.

Unfortunately, none of the property owners had flood insurance when Irene hit.

A 100-year flood point was tested, which could have helped the homeowners become eligible for the program. In testing, the base flood elevation was measured near the property destroyed on Water Street. The height measurements came back and proved that the homes on this street didn't meet standards that show a 1-percent chance the structure could be affected by a flood in a given year.

"How far do we ask homeowners to chase this?" asked Paul Fraser, a Selectboard member who also works with emergency management for the town. "They have been homeless for 16 months. We're looking for hope."

State Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, who was also at the meeting, told the Selectboard that it should continue to pursue HMGP funds and not give up just yet. He believes the houses on Water Street clearly met the program's criteria when the applications were first submitted.

Thad Leugemors, project manager for Science Applications International Corporation, thought an idea worth presenting to FEMA could be improving the road to better prepare for potential emergencies in the future and then FEMA would have to offer buyouts.

If the HMGP process fails to help the homeowners, Community Development Block Grant funds may be available. Since it is a form of community development, in the sense that it is taking people out of a flood plain, this plan may be a good alternative, according to several attendees of the meeting.

FEMA would pay 75 percent of the cost to buy out the property if the applications meet the regulations. CDBG would most likely pick up the additional 25 percent if the HMGP buyouts were to occur.

So, funds from a CDBG were always in the picture.

The CDBG will most likely get assistance for funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development. HUD usually helps with non-competitive and non-recurring disaster recovery projects by giving grants. The program aids recovery where needs were left unmet by other federal disaster assistance programs.

"It's hard to hear, ‘Here's some hope, but don't hope too much,'" Payne told everyone at the meeting.

"It may not be a consolation, but I can tell you that it is unusual for a community, CDBG and the Regional Planning commission to come together like this," replied HMGP Task Force Leader Robert Bohlmann. "I've seen denials happen fast. It's enlightening to see this."

"It makes me miss Vermont," said Payne.

Vermont has become known for its extensive help to homeowners using funds from CDBGs. In other states, such as New York, it is practically unheard of. Usually, money from those grants is used for more public work in the community.

"The thing that concerned me was, I said to myself, ‘Why is all this power, politicians included, coming down to potentially face a bunch of really angry people with bad news?'" said Fraser. "They could of sent me an e-mail saying no. But instead we have all this horsepower down here. We have resources that are being identified by people who are in a position to make some decisions. We are still stumbling in the dark but there is a difference in how the state has been addressing this issue compared to other states. Even though they don't like the results, they're still going to fight for them."

Several of the speakers discussed "rocks left unturned," which referred to the HGMP applications that have still not been completely denied by FEMA as well as alternative ways to make the buyouts still happen.

"Once again, I'm hopeful," said Payne. "I'm humbled by all of the time and energy that everyone's put in to make sure we don't get left behind."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or


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