Jamaica land buy-outs denied by FEMA

Wednesday January 16, 2013


Brattleboro Reformer

JAMAICA -- After more than a year of applying for a FEMA program that would provide buy-outs for landowners whose homes on Water Street had been destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene, the final verdict is in and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program applications have been denied.

"At first I was disappointed, but with the way everything is going now, what they're coming up with and how there's no possible way with the federal government. ... I'm kind of ashamed with the federal government and the way they're handling this," said one of the four homeowners, David Kaneshiro. "I hope the victims of (Hurricane) Sandy have better luck dealing with the federal government. I can see now why people are still having difficulty since (Hurricane) Katrina."

On Jan. 8, the Jamaica Selectboard had a telephone conference with State Hazard Mitigation Officer Ray Doherty and another person from the state concerning the Water Street properties, Selectboard Chairwoman Alexa Clark told the Reformer.

The board has been working on the homeowners' behalf since November 2011. The town won't be reimbursed for its work, which means the cost of its services falls on the taxpayers.

"There's been frustration for quite awhile. It took a long time to say ‘no,'" said Clark.

In December, the land owners were told that there was a chance that their applications would be denied by FEMA, but there was one more way that they could perhaps help them get buy-outs, before they had been denied late last week.

"They were going to look into one more cost/benefit analysis," Clark said.

The application had been turned down on Friday because in order to qualify, there had to have been two incidents, with similar damage, within the last 10 years. There hadn't been, so the land owners now have to look elsewhere if they are going to be helped.

Before that benefit/cost analysis had caused the final denial from FEMA, the displaced residents had been denied due to base flood elevations, which are FEMA standards to measure where flood zones may pose a higher risk in a given area.

"We have to see if there's any other avenues for the town or people to pursue," said Clark. "We've spent quite a bit of money on this program. We feel now that we need to do some more research."

Sue Minter, who has served as Vermont's Irene Recovery Officer until this week, said the state is not giving up on finding help for the folks in Jamaica and others around the state who have been told they're not eligible for the aid.

"We're not going to give up. We're not going to leave them stranded," said Minter, adding it's not only important to help these people to get on with their lives, but also to reduce future hazards.

But Minter said she understands how frustrated the former homeowners feel, a frustration the state shares.

"We went to Washington, D.C., and talked with FEMA," she said. "The state has another analysis of flood hazards, the Fluvial Erosion Hazard Mitigation Program, but the science we have doesn't fit into the way the FEMA program assesses future risk. It was not allowed."

State scientists also worked very hard to see if they could document previous floods that fit into FEMA's benefit/cost analysis protocol, said Minter.

"We made a lot of effort to see if we could get there," she said. "But we have come to the end of that line."

Nevertheless, said Minter, the state is not giving up.

Jen Hollar, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs is forming a committee to see if there is a way to utilize Community Development Block Grant funds to help those that FEMA has denied or if there are banks willing to offer some kind of financing.

The Jamaica homeowners were hoping to have 75 percent of the buy-outs covered by FEMA's HMGP funds. Then funds from the CDBG program were supposed to cover the remaining 25 percent of the buy-outs. Now, there is no clearcut plan for how to proceed.

"We'll have to discuss, see what they offer, what the town has to do, see if there's any restrictions and if the homeowners are going to benefit by it," said Clark. "Or if we're going to have to say we did everything we could and let it be."

As annual Town Meeting comes closer, the board won't have time to meet with the homeowners just yet.

"The main concern is the budget right now. How much more money that we have to spend and how much we're going to get back from FEMA for other projects" said Clark.

Kaneshiro had received an e-mail from Selectboard member Paul Fraser, who has been helping these property owners with applications and keeping them informed on the HMGP process.

Kaneshiro is sure that he will be filling out more applications for other programs, but isn't sure what these programs will be. His biggest concern, however, is trying to find the funds to replace his home that had been devastated by Irene.

"I don't know if I'll ever own my own home again," Kaneshiro said.

"Who's going to be interested in buying the property as is?"


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