Vt. Towns, In Holding Pattern, Await Flood Mitigation Funds

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At a time when many are preparing for the holidays, dozens of homeowners affected by Tropical Storm Irene are still waiting for the funds they need to get back on their feet.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved buyouts of several properties, but none of the owners has gotten any money.

In Northfield, FEMA approved buying out seven homes through its program that prohibits redevelopment of flood-prone properties. But all of the homeowners continue to wait for their checks.

"I would have expected it within a year, and that’s gone by," says Bonnie Pemberton whose home on Water Street was destroyed in the flood. For her and her husband, FEMA’s decision last month was a symbolic one.


"We have not seen a penny," Pemberton says. "We have not even seen the paperwork."

Statewide, FEMA has approved spending more than $23.4 million to buy out 81 properties – or 71 percent of the 114 submitted for its hazard mitigation grant program.

But the delay in funding is causing a lot of stress for those who’ve had to readjust their expectations for a full recovery. As Congress obsesses over reducing the national debt, disaster mitigation grants that once seemed black and white are now many shades of gray.

"We’re doing the very best we can to try to expedite things and move things through the pipeline," says Ray Doherty, the State Hazard Mitigation Officer. Doherty says he understands why the public is so frustrated with the bureaucracy, "particularly with the home buyouts because it’s a very complex process with the approvals."

That includes environmental approvals, and, in some cases, even more time-consuming historical preservation reviews that have to be completed before homeowners get money.

"There’s just a multitude of steps that have to take place before the final green light is given for the demolition," Doherty says.

The mitigation funds are also paying for municipal projects, such as new culverts where infrastructure has been washed out repeatedly to improve drainage.

But all the paperwork is overwhelming officials in towns across Vermont. Mark Doughty is emergency management director in Stockbridge, which was partially destroyed by Irene’s floodwaters. So far, all 14 properties in Stockbridge submitted for hazard mitigation grants have been approved but none has been funded. Doughty says FEMA’s delay has baffled him.

"The process is either so fouled up or these people are so incompetent that they don’t know what they’re doing," Doughty says. "It’s an embarrassment."

Distressed properties are still scattered throughout the small mountain town. "Keep Out" and "No Trespassing" signs hang in their windows. "That’s really the eyesore," Doughty says. "We’ve done a lot of stream bank restoration work. On [Route] 107 we’ve just put down 10,000 cubic yards of rock to hold the stream bank so that three homeowners wouldn’t lose their property."

"It’s coming back, but it’s slow," he says.

As the sky turns black, Bonnie Pemberton leaves work at National Life in Montpelier to return – again – to the home she and her husband have been renting for months. A light snow falls and she says she’s worried about the bills they’ll need to pay.

"One of the hardest things for a lot of us is the fuel," Pemberton says. "There was a lot more assistance last year to help us get through [the winter] than there is this year."

FEMA’s rigidity has eroded Pemberton’s hopes and expectations, but she’s optimistic that she’ll have a new home in the spring.

Meanwhile, FEMA says another round of decisions is expected in February. There’s still no word when homeowners will receive their checks.

Earlier: A Year After Irene, Stockbridge Works Through Recovery

VPR News: Irene Continues To Exact A Toll For Homeowners

You can find select board documents from Northfield and other Vermont cities and towns at VPR’s Public Post. While you’re there, post a comment or send a message on Twitter using the hash-tag #PublicPost to open a discussion about an issue in your town. For example, how is your town mitigating future flooding?

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