At a recent Statehouse hearing, Vermont Irene recovery officer Sue Minter was asked about Federal Emergency Management Agency funding decisions for the Waterbury office complex.
Minter turned to a man in a dark suit seated behind her.
"Maybe we can hear experience from other states that would shed some light on that possible scenario," she said.
The man was Ralph Lawrence of Witt Associates, and he offered a detailed answer about FEMA regulations. The company is one of two consulting firms the state hired shortly after Tropical Storm Irene to navigate FEMA’s bureaucratic maze. The state is set to pay up to $4 million under a pair of consulting contracts with the disaster management specialists.
Witt Associates includes many former FEMA officials and was founded by James Witt, who directed the agency during the Clinton administration.
In an interview, Minter explained why the state needed outside help.
"We had one person in state government for this purpose because we never had anything of this magnitude. We are utilizing these consultants not just to get work done, but to train us," she said. Because we now understand we have to have expertise in FEMA public assistance; we have to have more expertise and trained personnel in the hazard mitigation grant program."
But what has the state gotten for its investment?
Minter points to the number of repair projects that FEMA has paid for or promised to fund as evidence that the consultants are worth the money.
"If we didn’t have that assistance on the ground, we would be way further back. The fact (is) that at this point well over 60 percent of the money that they have submitted to FEMA has been deemed as reimbursable," she said.
As of the middle of October, FEMA has spent $129 million in Vermont under its public assistance programs for Irene projects.
In many instances, it’s impossible to make the direct connection between the amount of money that FEMA approves and the work done by the consultants.
But town officials say the consultants have been very useful. Because before they get any FEMA money, they have to document the damage on forms called project work sheets, known as P-Ws.
The forms require towns to spell out in excruciating detail what was destroyed, how much it will cost to fix, and what FEMA should pay.
Many of the consultants had evaluated these very forms in the days they worked for FEMA. So they’ve helped towns complete the paperwork and follow it through FEMA’s channels.
Scott Murphy is town manager in Wilmington, a Deerfield Valley community severely damaged by Irene. Downtown businesses were flooded, as were town offices and the fire station.
"You know, without that help (from the consultants) we would still be doing them today," he said.
Murphy says the state dispatched a Witt consultant to Wilmington last November.
"She did the actual grunt work of processing the actual PiWs required by FEMA. She would also follow up on them because FEMA is not a streamlined operation," he said.
Wilmington ended up needing more than 60 project worksheets. Murphy says the consultants helped bring in more than $1 million from the feds.
"FEMA sent out mixed signals, and there was so many different FEMA people coming in, coming out, a new person coming in to replace them. And we would get different guidelines from each one of them. So it was very frustrating," he said. "And if it wasn’t for that Witt Associates (consultant) who would track down the correct answer – or the correct answer at that moment – and then work to provide that information, it would be very difficult for us."
The state contract with Witt is worth up to $2 million. Vermont has also signed a separate $2.1 million deal with SAIC, a large consulting firm based in northern Virginia. SAIC is focused more on FEMA hazard mitigation projects in which the government buys out the flood damaged property.
Four million dollars could be considered a lot of money for a pair of consulting contracts. But state officials say that most of the money will, in fact, be paid by FEMA itself.
That’s because money spent to prepare the paperwork for FEMA can be included in project costs that are recovered from the government.
Michael Clasen oversees the consulting contracts for the state in his job as deputy administration secretary.
"The history from these companies shows that between 60 and 70 percent of their expenses, or costs, if you will, are directly reimbursable from FEMA," he said. "So $4.1 (million), if you do 60 percent it’s roughly $2.5 million."
FEMA says it makes sense for a state like Vermont – which doesn’t have much experience recovering from disasters – to hire consultants.
But is there tension when federal officials sit down across the table with their former FEMA colleagues, some of whom bill more than $180 dollars an hour?
Mark Landry, the federal coordinating officer for the Vermont disasters, says that’s not an issue.
"You know, human nature is human nature, but my experience is we all can cooperate and build trust. And really, we’re both coming from the perspective of how do we support the citizens of in this case the state of Vermont," he said.
Hurricane Sandy that hit New York and New Jersey will likely bring more work for disaster management consulting firms. Scott Murphy, the Wilmington town manager, says their expertise will be needed, despite President Obama’s promises to cut the red tape.
"And I just had to laugh because FEMA, you know, there is no way to streamline that process," he said. "It’s a very difficult and changing target, and I don’t envy anybody in New Jersey or New York that has to deal with that."
Meanwhile, some of the consultant’s work in Vermont has been extended through the end of 2013. That’s a sign of the job left to do. One big unfinished item is to get up to $120 million from FEMA to rebuild the state offices in Waterbury.