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September 2, 2016

VT Public Safety - Mitigation Projects Funded - Irene Progress Continues

Vermont Department of Public Safety

Op-Ed/Press Release

September 2, 2016

8:00 a.m.

 

Contact: Mark Bosma, Vermont Department of Public Safety, 802-839-6717

 

Five years after Irene, Hazard Mitigation Program progress continues: six projects awarded in August

By Keith Flynn, Commissioner, VT Department of Public Safety

 

On August 24 of this year, FEMA Region 1 notified the State of Vermont’s Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security that it was awarding a $96,750 grant to the Town of Enosburg for the federal share of a culvert upgrade on the Tyler Branch.  One of six Vermont projects approved in August alone, this was the latest, but will not be the last project to benefit from federal assistance tied to Tropical Storm Irene.

 

The federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) continues to make Vermont communities stronger – five years after Irene.   HMGP provides assistance to communities like Enosburg to fix areas of repetitive damage and make trouble spots safer.  Making those areas more flood resistant through elevation of a building or road, larger culverts, or stronger riverbanks also helps save towns, the state, and the federal government money in repair costs over the long run.

 

HMGP funding is awarded based on the size of a Public Assistance Disaster Declaration at a rate of 15-cents on the dollar.  PA funding for Irene totaled $211-million in Vermont, which means the state was allotted up to $34.5 million for HMGP projects.  The unprecedented size of the Irene disaster presented an opportunity and a challenge for Vermont. 

 

Declared disasters in Vermont are most often under five-million-dollars, which means HMGP funding most often amounts to hundreds of thousands to a million dollars.  To adapt to the changing landscape and better select projects for funding the State hired expert contractors for the first year after Irene to build up the program.  The Department of Public Safety then established a Recovery and Mitigation Section within the Emergency Management & Homeland Security Division (DEMHS) to further build the program.  Mitigation staff have been working with communities since then to develop HMGP applications and take full advantage of the hazard mitigation funding opportunity that Irene created.

 

A committee that consists of Vermont Regional Planners, DEMHS Mitigation staff, and representatives from other state agencies selects projects for submission to FEMA.  Most often, successful applications are those that represent an opportunity for greater safety to the public and greatest cost savings over time.  Those applications are then sent to FEMA for review and approval, a process that can take months, or in some cases years.

 

The Enosburg application that was approved in August was originally submitted to FEMA on May 30, 2014.  Under the rules of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, FEMA cannot award a project in a community unless it has an approved Hazard Mitigation Plan.  In Enosburg’s case the grant could not be approved until after their Hazard Mitigation Plan was submitted, reviewed, resubmitted, and approved.  DEMHS staff worked closely with the Enosburg to ensure the plan was thorough and approved, and regularly work with other towns to navigate the federal process.

 

Of the $34.5 million available for HMGP after Irene, approximately $20 million was allocated for acquisitions – buy-outs of homes and businesses damaged by Irene that were built in floodplains and vulnerable to flooding again.  Of 194 HMGP applications submitted to FEMA, 141 were for buy-outs.  To date, 133 of them have been approved by FEMA, and more than 100 are completely “closed-out”.  In Northfield, for example, a neighborhood of homes that had been flooded and were vulnerable to future flooding have been removed, and the land is now a beautiful town park along Water Street.

 

Vermont’s Congressional delegation was essential in advocating for the State with FEMA.  The State successfully negotiated with FEMA for extra time, beyond the usual one-year window for submitting HMGP grants and the “routine” 12-month-extension, for a third year, allowing for applications to be submitted right up until the 3rd anniversary of Irene in 2014.

 

During the month of August five other Vermont towns also received awards through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program:

$123,750 to the Town of Brandon to supplement $1,196,533 awarded in July for Phase II of a downtown overflow relief culvert project;

$329,923 to the Town of Charleston for culvert and ditching improvements along Hudson Road (based on an application originally submitted to FEMA in May 2014);

$79,460 for a structural elevation in Town of Richmond;

$11,668 to Town of Marshfield for an emergency generator;

$14,848 to Town of Ripton for an emergency generator at their community shelter.

 

There is still more than $8-million of HMGP funding from Irene available, and more than $8-million in applications pending, many of them still under environmental and historic preservation review.  Applications still pending with FEMA include 7 buy-outs (2 in Ludlow and 5 in Chelsea), and 20 infrastructure projects.  Many streambank sites are also archeologically sensitive, and archeological studies are required before FEMA can approve site work to remove existing structures or build larger drainage structures which might disturb artifacts.  Working through the technical details and FEMA information requests to secure approval of these remaining HMGP projects is an important component of the ongoing work that DPS, and the State of Vermont face in “finishing strong” on Irene recovery.

 

The process of recovery has been long and large, but together as Vermonters we have taken all the necessary steps to make Vermont stronger than when Irene found us.

 

For more information about projects referenced in this story, contact State Hazard Mitigation Officer Lauren Oates (lauren.oates@vermont.gov) or Recovery and Mitigation Section Chief Ben Rose (ben.rose@vermont.gov).