Culvert Conundrum: Towns Out $8 Million Because FEMA Won’t Pay

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The lowly culvert – out of sight and out of mind until a flood takes them out -got a lot of attention in the Statehouse on Wednesday.

The issue is whether the federal government will help towns pay to build bigger bridges and culverts to replace those destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.

Town officials told lawmakers that after Irene they scrambled to rebuild their roads and to help those whose homes washed away. They also had to quickly navigate a confusing and sometimes contradictory federal bureaucracy.

Brad Atwood is the chair of the Sharon selectboard. He says a Federal Emergency Management Agency official approved in writing a town bridge project over Faye Brook. But then the official was re-assigned.

"And it was about the time that the bridge opened up that the new FEMA person came into town and said, ‘oh you don’t have a project worksheet, let me take a look at this,’" Atwood recalled. "So we already had a bridge that’s constructed. And he comes in and says, ‘well, sorry we can’t approve this because it’s designed to Vermont standards and we just can’t allow that, God forbid.’"

State standards for bridge and culvert construction are the big issue in this case and dozens like it around the state.

More than 1,000 culverts failed in Irene. And the state wants towns to build bigger and better structures so they’ll withstand the next disaster. The added benefit is that well-designed culverts also allow fish to access feeder streams so trout and other species can swim into tributaries to spawn or to seek cooler water in the heat of the summer.

But FEMA has declined to pay for the upgraded bridges and culverts. Agency spokesman David Mace says the state standards are not universally applied.

"FEMA has determined that the Agency of Natural Resources permit system is discretionary and therefore it’s not an eligible standard for reimbursement," he said.

The state has appealed the decision to FEMA headquarters in Washington. State and congressional officials told lawmakers that the state standards are not discretionary and therefore should qualify for 90 percent federal reimbursement.

David Weinstein is an aide to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. He pointed out that FEMA’s mission includes helping communities prevent future disasters.

"I think the culverts are actually a great test case for this in some ways because the end logic of putting the culverts back in place the way they were at taxpayer’s expense is just illogical," Weinstein said. "These culverts have proven to be inadequate. They blew out. What makes us think that they’re going to survive the next flood when they didn’t survive the last flood?"

If FEMA doesn’t pay, towns are on the hook for about $8.3 million just to cover the bridge and culvert work. Ben Rose of Vermont Emergency Management says communities also face another $10.9 million in un-reimbursed Irene related expenses, such as removing debris from rivers and streams. The state has challenged some of FEMA’s decisions in those areas as well.

Rose coined a phrase for towns still struggling to build back 18 months after Irene.

"There are five or seven towns that I think of us as Humpty Dumpty towns," he said. "We haven’t put them back together yet. They’re still figuring out what it’s going to cost."

State officials said about 90 percent of the FEMA funding applications have gone through, for an expected total of about $300 million. It’s the remaining 10 percent that is causing towns so much financial pain.

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