Feds give state the OK to avoid flood damage

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MONTPELIER — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given final approval to a Vermont plan to continue buying out homes and other properties that are prone to flood damage so structures can be destroyed and the land opened up to allow future floodwaters to rise without causing damage.

The state's 2018 hazard mitigation plan builds on a series of 135 property buyouts that followed Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when floodwaters in some cases washed homes away completely.

With a combination of federal, state and sometimes private money, property owners were paid the pre-flood market value for their homes. The areas were cleared and in many cases turned into parks where future floodwaters could rise and fall with minimal damage. In certain circumstances, homeowners remain eligible for the buyout program even if their homes were repaired and reoccupied after Irene or other more localized floods.

"There are homes that were damaged in Irene where the homeowners didn't want to move and they decided they wanted to try to rebuild or repair, most likely if they didn't have substantial damage," said Lauren Oates, Vermont's hazard mitigation officer, who worked for years on the new plan. "They are now coming back and saying, 'Hey, is some of that money still available? Every time it rains, we're uncomfortable in our home.'"

The new plan hazard mitigation plan, which was approved in November, also includes calls to protect low-lying areas across the state where floodwaters can spread out without causing damage, working closely with communities to protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat.

After Irene hit Vermont, the state decided to, as much as possible, make repairs that take into account the reality that future floods are likely, especially in an era when climate change is expected to increase the number of severe weather events.

The buyout program is part of a national hazard mitigation effort, which is completely voluntary. It is being taken advantage of in all the New England states, said Richard Verville, who works in FEMA's New England regional hazard mitigation program.

The FEMA hazard mitigation program that pays 75 percent of the cost of the project, while the rest is paid for with state and local funds.

"I would have to say that Vermont has probably done the most. ... I attribute that to Irene, because of the magnitude of that event and the amount of money that was available for mitigation," Verville said.

Federal money for the program, which Verville describes as acquisition and demolition rather than buyouts, becomes available after federally declared disasters. FEMA makes awards to the state, which then works with communities that buy the properties from homeowners.

The statewide buyout program is designed to be used even in cases when federal funding isn't available, Oates said.

"Instead of just going after homes that have been damaged, (it would) go after lands that haven't necessarily been developed, but need to be conserved so that development doesn't occur," she said.

Oates said one of the continuing projects is to turn what had been the 11 buildings of the Melrose Terrace affordable housing complex along the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro into a park.

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