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Vermont’s top housing official concerned by FEMA’s count of homes destroyed by floods

A man in a suit speaks at a table inside a formal committee room with yellow walls, a high ceiling, and framed artwork
Glenn Russell
Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, testifies at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far given out over $13 million to more than 2,400 Vermonters impacted by July’s catastrophic flooding.

But the number of applicants whose homes have been deemed destroyed by FEMA is relatively small. And some state officials say they’re worried the agency’s assessments don’t match up to the impacts on the ground.

So far, FEMA has only determined that nine homes have been destroyed by July’s flooding, along with two rental properties, said Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford at a special legislative hearing on Tuesday. Another 234 homes and 91 rental properties are considered to have major damage, he said.

Hanford called these low numbers “concerning.”

“You can see that from FEMA’s numbers, the majority of damage they consider minor,” Hanford said. “But from what we saw in Barre, what we know from other situations — I think that number is a lot higher.”

FEMA’s current internal guidance lays out a list of criteria the agency considers when deciding whether a home is repairable or “destroyed” — and thus eligible for a higher payout. If two or more major structural components need to be replaced because of damage from the disaster (like load-bearing walls or the foundation), or if flood waters have reached the roof, inundating most of the living area, then the home is considered destroyed.

Hanford pointed to manufactured home communities specifically. Across four parks that saw major flooding — two in Berlin, one in Ludlow, and another in Johnson — 52 homes have been condemned by the state’s Division of Fire Safety.

“So the FEMA number of total destroyed and what we’re seeing aren’t matching yet,” Hanford said.

The number of destroyed homes could tick up. FEMA is still completing inspections, and some households may go through appeals before reaching a final determination, Hanford noted.

The federal agency has so far approved 21 maximum awards to Vermonters following the floods, Hanford said. The highest housing award FEMA can give is $41,000.

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Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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