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'Spinning our wheels': Vt. counties still waiting for federal flood assistance

A man and woman stand in front of a black, wood building. Mud cakes the sides, indicating where flood waters reached.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Doug and Cheri Safford stand in front of The Red Sky Trading Post in Glover, which was inundated with 3 feet of water.

Editor's note: Residents in Caledonia and Orange countiesbecame eligible for individual assistancefrom the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday, July 21.

Flood-ravaged residents in counties that aren’t part of President Joe Biden’s major disaster declaration are waiting anxiously to find out when, or if, federal assistance will be available to help them rebuild their lives.

Biden approved Gov. Phil Scott’s request for a major disaster declaration in Vermont on Friday, and the decision will deliver millions of dollars in federal assistance to some families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the flood.

The declaration only includes six counties so far, however. And that’s left homeowners like Doug and Cheri Safford, in Orleans County, balancing the stress of clean up with the uncertainty of their financial future.

“Until this county is declared, we’re spinning our wheels,” Cheri Safford said Monday.

The Saffords have lived on Route 16 in the village of Glover for more than 30 years. Their brick home, constructed in 1830, sits on a little yard that abuts the Barton River — the same river that overtook their home after 7 inches of rain fell in parts of Orleans County last week.

A man in a bright blue shirt talks to three people outside.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Doug and Cheri Safford meet with representatives from FEMA outside their home and retail store in Glover.

Doug Safford recalled the scene in the basement as the waters crested on Monday night.

“The freezer was floating. They were up right along by the window here,” he said.

Their retail business, called the Red Sky Trading Post, is in a red barn next door. Cheri Safford said 3 feet of water destroyed inventory and equipment in there, too.

The Saffords haven’t begun to tally the dollar amount of the loss they’ve suffered. But you don’t need to be an insurance adjustor to appreciate the scope of the damage here.

When Cheri Safford went to the FEMA website to apply for individual assistance, she got an unhappy surprise.

“I got down to the drop down for the counties, and I clicked Orleans — no designation for your area,” she said.

No designation because only Chittenden, Lamoille, Rutland, Washington, Windham and Windsor counties have been included in Biden’s declaration. The Saffords, like so many other families in Orleans County, have no idea yet whether the federal government will help them rebuild.

Three people stand in front of a table with cleaning supplies like wipes, sprays and sponges, lined up for flood relief help.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
From left: El Stone, Penny Thomas and Pastor Alyssa May at the Federate Church of Orleans, which will serve as a supply depot for flood survivors in Orleans County.

FEMA officials said additional counties “may” be added at a later date. Officials at the Vermont Emergency Operations Center said in a release that more counties “will be added to the declaration.” But it’s unclear when that’ll happen, or even what FEMA needs to find in places like Orleans in order to get added to the list.

“I know that FEMA’s busy,” Cheri Safford said. “But I don’t understand why we’re waiting so long to be declared. I just don’t understand it. The (Northeast) Kingdom’s tough as it is. And it’s a beautiful place. But people are going to be picking up the pieces themselves.”

Over in Caledonia County, Bryan Palilonis was chopping onions in the kitchen of his taco restaurant in Hardwick Monday. He had a few inches of water on the floor here last Monday, but he and some family members and volunteers stripped and replaced the floor, and they’re already back in business.

“Yeah the health inspector came on Friday … and the propane guys came right away Wednesday,” he said.

Palilonis’ home a couple of miles away, where he lives with his partner and their 4 year old, is a different story.

“It’s pretty bleak,” he said. “The house got swallowed by the brook.”

Two people in t-shirts stand in a kitchen near gray appliances.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Bryan Palilonis, left, and employee Mitch Hunt. Palilonis owns a restaurant in Hardwick that has recovered from flooding.

The Alder Brook reached a height of 3 feet on the first floor. Palilonis is pretty sure the structure is a total loss.

“It’s got a foot and a half of silt and sediment. The floor joist is broke and the foundation — it was on post and beam,” he said. “My dad and I built it ourselves. It was an old camp that was pretty derelict and we just little by little changed it into our beautiful cabin.”

As if being displaced by a catastrophic flood wasn’t enough to deal with, Caledonia County hasn’t made the cut yet for Biden’s disaster declaration. Palilonis is concerned total flood-related damages in the county won’t be sufficient to clear the disaster declaration threshold.

“We’re just on this little speck of Caledonia where it got just devastated and the rest of the county’s fine,” he said.

Palilonis said the system feels irrational — just because someone drew a political boundary 200 or so years ago, the lives of flood victims in counties that are in the declaration, and those that aren’t, are potentially on two very different trajectories.

“It’d be pretty insane if they don’t have, you know, the human love for what happened to us,” he said. “I mean, okay, great — the rest of the county doesn’t need it. But what about us Hardwick folks?”

The low-lying homes on Meadow Street in Williamstown, which is in Orange County, suffered devastating damage.

Over the hum of fans and dehumidifiers whirring in her basement, Lori Trottier relived the nightmare that unfolded last week.

She and her husband and two kids had three sump pumps and three shop vacs going as the water rose in their basement.

“And we were just trying to keep up with it,” Trottier said. “And finally, I think it was around 7:30, my son just grabbed me around the shoulders and said, ‘Mom, we can’t keep up with it. We got to go. It’s getting more than we can do.’ And within just a few minutes it started coming up the stairs.”

The water’s destroyed all the utilities in the basement. With some help from a local contractor, they’ve already stripped the drywall.

Getting the place back to normal won’t be cheap. And Trottier said individual assistance from FEMA would be huge.

“My husband just retired and we were planning on going somewhere with our camper,” she said. “But now it’s like cleaning all this up. Yeah, it’s just overwhelming. It’s overwhelming.”

State and federal officials say flood victims in counties that haven’t been added to the declaration yet should call 2-1-1 to report damage, so that FEMA can send inspectors to assess the damage there.

A man stands outside in an orange shirt.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Phil Brooks is the emergency management coordinator for the town of Glover.

Phil Brooks, the emergency management coordinator for the town of Glover, spent his Monday walking through the hardest-hit parts of town with a delegation of officials from FEMA and the Small Business Administration.

“It’s important today for me to take them out and show them the damage that the town suffered so that we can get it duly noted and add to the aggregate amount of damage in the county to rise to the level of an individual declaration,” Brooks said.

Brooks, a former career law enforcement officer, said what happened in Glover is unprecedented. He said he could hear boulders thundering down the river when waters peaked.

“I mean you could hear stuff that I’ve never heard in 54 years of living here that I’ve never heard,” he said. “I’ve never seen the river rise and drop as fast as it did last Monday.”

Brooks said homes and businesses have been damaged and destroyed, and he said financial assistance from the federal government will be critical to the recovery.

“We’re going to need to some help. We need some help,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

In the village of Orleans in the town of Barton, local volunteers have established a supplies-distribution hub at the Orleans Federated Church.

They plan to open up as a stop-and-grab spot for flood survivors in the coming days. Right now, they’re using contributions to buy supplies and deliver them directly to local homes, according to El Stone, who helped organize the effort.

“How we’re functioning right now is people are saying, ‘Hey, I need this.’ And then we’re going out and giving it to them,” Stone said.

Stone said volunteers from Northeast Kingdom Organizing have been going door-to-door to assess the scope of the damage and assess the need. She said FEMA’s failure to include Orleans County in the disaster declaration would devastate people who are already living on the economic margins.

“I mean, I think it would be catastrophic for a lot of families,” she said. “We’re seeing that the people who are already the most affected by poverty and economic disparity are the ones who got hit the hardest, because they live in flood areas and those are the homes that they could buy.”

A woman sits on the ground surrounded by boxes and cases of bottles water.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Penny Thomas, of Newport, prepares a box of supplies for a flood survivor in Orleans County.

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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

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      Updated: July 21, 2023 at 11:52 AM EDT
      This story was updated to reflect that residents in Caledonia and Orange counties are now eligible for federal assistance.
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