Jamaica Homes Lost In Irene May Not Get FEMA Help

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A block of four homes in Jamaica that were washed away in Tropical Storm Irene may not qualify for a FEMA buyout.

The news comes as a shock to the four displaced Water Street homeowners, who’ve been waiting more than a year for the program to come through.

Dave Kaneshiro, one of the four homeowners, heard the news in an email passed on by a town official. The FEMA buyout he and his neighbors were counting on was about to be denied because the properties are not in fact included on FEMA maps as being within a flood plain.

Kaneshiro lays out two aerial photos on a picnic table near the Jamaica town offices. One shows where their homes and yards were before the flood washed everything away. Another shows a drastically altered landscape.

He points. "This is Depot Street, the bridge down here, Water Street. And the brook is way over here now. And yet they denied us."

Karin Hardy, another Water Street resident who lost everything, says Jamaica has seen similar floods, though not as bad, in the 1970’s and in 1938.

Hardy asks, How could it not be a floodplain when four homes were swept away? She also wonders why the issue of the maps didn’t come up sooner.

"Why would it take so long to come to this sort of preliminary conclusion and get our hope up," she wonders. "We’ve been expecting this for a year, this was just a matter of time before it was going to get processed."

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is designed to lessen the impact of future floods through a variety of safety measures. The property buyout program removes flood prone buildings and pays up to three-quarters of their value.

Ray Doherty administers the program for the state. He says Vermont has submitted 114 buyout applications since Irene. So far 74 have been approved.

Doherty hasn’t received formal notification that  Jamaica has been denied. But he says that’s what he’s been told.

He says state officials hope to talk FEMA into making an exception, formally known as an Alternatives Consideration.

"We’re not taking no for an answer," Doherty says. "We’re still looking for ways to convince FEMA these people need help."

One of the issues Doherty plans to argue is that FEMA flood maps are based on inundation flooding, not erosion flooding like Vermont saw in Tropical Storm Irene.

"They don’t take into account erosion" Doherty says, "Or rivers changing course, or the type of damage that occurred in Jamaica on these Water Street properties."

The Water Street applications have gone through many layers of scrutiny. Doherty thinks an early inspection may have missed the fact that the street wasn’t mapped as flood a zone. After that, he says the error could have gone unnoticed.

Alexa Clark, the Jamaica selectboard chair, wonders if the town moved too quickly, in its wish to help the displaced homeowners.

"I wish we’d looked into it further, she says, "to see what we needed before we went through months of paperwork and getting the people’s hopes up, and not realizing that if it wasn’t in that flood plain that we should have looked for other alternatives."

Ray Doherty says if FEMA does deny the buyout, the properties will be considered for state grants.

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