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Fight Grows Over Storm-Damage Funds

Source: WSJ

Posted on 03 Aug 2012 by Neilson

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FEMADuane Tompkins, the constable of tiny Wardsboro, Vt., finds himself facing a troubled bridge over water.

Nearly a year after Tropical Storm Irene deluged the village of 900 people, making it one of 13 towns in Vermont temporarily isolated by the disaster, Mr. Tompkins is trying to build a new bridge that can withstand the next storm.

But he and officials from about 40 other towns are caught in an escalating dispute between state authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over how to mend washed-out river infrastructure.

Vermont is requiring towns to rebuild bridges and culverts according to the state's own river-management standards, which often call for bigger structures than previously existed. But according to a formal appeal filed by Vermont with FEMA, the federal agency has refused to reimburse towns for upgrades that Vermont is requiring.

"We know this isn't our last event. We are committed to building back stronger; that means making the infrastructure more robust, and making better and bigger culverts and bridges," said Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. "This is where we're having a disagreement with FEMA. They are coming back to many towns and saying we don't think you're eligible for that bigger structure."

Vermont officials expect a decision on the appeal in weeks. Filed in May, it asks FEMA to follow Vermont standards, some adopted in recent years. State officials say more than 90% of their bridges and culverts -- man-made conduits that carry water and river debris under roads -- were undersized before Irene.

FEMA said in a statement it "remains committed" to working with Vermont to ensure that all applicants "receive the maximum amount of funding for which they are eligible."

In the meantime, many towns seeking reimbursement have already paid tens of thousands of dollars for bigger bridges and culverts, said Ms. Minter, who recently held a conference call with 40 towns where eligibility may be in question.

Following state standards, officials in Wardsboro designed a new bridge and culvert that would allow 60% more water through than the old structure and cost $450,000.

Mr. Tompkins, the constable, said FEMA produced a design slightly smaller than what had been there, costing $120,000. "I'm very frustrated. Vermont has one standard but FEMA is going with their own," he said.

The state has pegged recovery costs from Irene at more than $773 million. FEMA has pledged to reimburse applicants for 90% of eligible costs for repairs. It already has distributed $136.5 million in Vermont, an agency spokesman said Thursday.

FEMA officials declined to comment beyond their statement. In an interview last week with Vermont Public Radio, Steven Ward, FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer in Vermont said the agency was trying to determine a final award number for Vermont. He said there are "very challenging policy issues," including "what the state requires as far as codes and standards."

Christopher Kilian, vice president of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, an environmental advocacy group, said he can understand why there is confusion. After Irene, some towns hastily went ahead with all sorts of river projects, he said.

"Some towns just went out of bounds . . . and appropriately, maybe FEMA is saying, 'wait, we're not going to pay for that,'" he said. "At the same time, FEMA should not focus on putting things back the way they were because that's going to lead to the same sort of outcome."

After Irene filled the Roaring Branch River with boulders and trees for miles, adjacent Bennington got a permit from the state and the Army Corps of Engineers and rushed to shore up its levee, armor its banks and clear debris from the river.

The town, which has an annual budget of $12 million, took out an emergency line of credit to do the work, which cost nearly $4 million.

FEMA has told Bennington in recent weeks it wasn't eligible for funding, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd. He said FEMA didn't give an explanation and the decision was a surprise because the town had been talking to FEMA for 11 months and "at no time did we get an indication we were out there on our own."

"We're going to appeal the decision all the way to Washington if we have to," he said.