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Digging deeper into FEMA aid one month after the start of Vermont's flooding disaster

A bathtub spray painted with the words, 'Hey FEMA.'
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
A spray painted bathtub in Glover. Residents of Orleans County waited more than two weeks to be added to the list of counties that are eligible for individual assistance.

It’s been about a month since storms began to cause major flooding and damage in Vermont, and many Vermonters are still sorting through the process of getting federal help.

Two representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency joined Vermont Edition on Monday to answer questions about the process.

FEMA has received more than 4,300 applications for individual assistance and has approved nearly $11 million, said Becky Szymcik, FEMA’s individual assistance branch chief for the New England region.

The Small Business Administration has also approved $6.2 million in low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and businesses, she said.

Meanwhile, in the world of roads, bridges, fire stations and other public infrastructure, FEMA Public Assistance Supervisor Tim Baker said he’s working on 87 requests for assistance from towns and villages.

Below are highlights from Szymcik and Baker’s conversation with host Mikaela Lefrak.

We’ve hardly gotten a break from flooding in the last month. Can people get help repairing damage from some of the more recent storms?

The FEMA declaration is for severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides that began July 7 “and continuing.”

The exact period of the disaster is determined by FEMA headquarters and the White House, Szymcik said — and that hasn’t yet been set.

“I don’t know what will happen with the additional storms,” Szymcik said. She encouraged people who’d suffered damage in more recent storms — such as the flooding in Addison County last week — to report their damage to Vermont 2-1-1.

“And we can certainly look at any unmet needs and see how we can help people outside of what we normally do on the designated counties," she said.

A person in rain boots walks on a road the is split horizontally due to flood waters.
Stacey Peters
Flood waters damaged Fassett Hill Road in Hancock on August 3 and 4.

Will more counties be added to the individual assistance declaration?

As of Aug. 7, people are eligible for individual assistance in the following counties:

  • Caledonia County
  • Chittenden County
  • Lamoille County
  • Orange County
  • Orleans County
  • Rutland County
  • Washington County
  • Windham County
  • Windsor County

“I can tell you that our team has been looking at additional counties,” Szymcik said, adding that the process involves complex coordination between FEMA and state government.
A listener sent an email about a friend in Franklin County who was not eligible even though they suffered damage on July 11.

Szymcik suggested that the person reach out to the Small Business Administration, which can offer low-interest loans for homeowners and renters in declared counties and also help businesses in contiguous counties with economic losses. The deadline to apply for those loans is Sept. 12. People should apply for a loan in case they need it, Szymcik said — they can always decide not to go through with it.

The person could also visit a Disaster Recovery Center for guidance.

“I am so sorry that we can’t help everybody. I really wish we could,” Szymcik said.

Vermont has an extreme shortage of affordable housing. If someone qualifies for rental assistance but can’t find anywhere to rent, what next?

“We’re exploring some alternative housing options with the state where we might be able to provide a different form of temporary housing instead of someone trying to struggle with the 10 rental properties that are available in a certain county,” Szymcik said.

Those alternatives might be a hotel room with a kitchen or a mobile home, she said.

What can people do if they’ve already received a denial letter from FEMA?

If you have a denial letter, your best bet is to talk to someone face-to-face at a Disaster Recovery Center to find out what you need to do to appeal, Szymcik said.

If that’s not possible, call FEMA and give them your name and registration ID number. They can tell you what additional documents might be needed — for example, a contractor’s estimate.

Szymcik said people have more time, beyond the Sept. 12 deadline, to submit additional information.

Read the denial letter carefully, Baker added: It’s possible you used wording in your application that just doesn’t fit in the FEMA system.

What about people who were required to have flood insurance but couldn’t afford it?

People whose required flood insurance has lapsed may not be eligible for all FEMA assistance this time, Szymcik said — but they may be eligible for rental assistance.

Szymcik said on Vermont Edition that the rental assistance money doesn’t necessarily have to be spent on renting a new place to live.

“Anyone who receives rental assistance, FEMA does prefer if you use the money for what it is issued to you for. However, if you need to use that assistance that we’ve given you for something else — such as you’ve received rental assistance and you can use it to repair something in your home — please feel free to do that,” Szymcik said.

People could even use the rental assistance money for basic needs like groceries, she added.

“Just keep your receipts in case you do have to come back to FEMA and say, ‘I used it for this, Becky Szymcik on VPR said it was OK.’ I will own that.”

A FEMA spokesperson contacted Vermont Public after the show to note that people will see information about appropriate uses of their funds in their notification letter from FEMA. Receipients should keep their receipts and invoices for at least three years in case FEMA selects their case for an audit.

And the FEMA spokesperson added a word of caution to Szymcik's statements: "In the case of rental assistance, if applicants cannot demonstrate that they used their rental assistance for temporary housing, they may not be eligible for continued rental assistance."

Flood water flows downhill through rocks.
Stacey Peters
The remains of a residential driveway in Hancock after flooding on August 3.

Are driveways eligible for FEMA help? What about private roads?

Driveways are not typically included, Szymcik said.

"We cover the primary residence and the structure. We don't typically cover outbuildings — so, garages, barns, sheds, things like that," Szymcik said. "FEMA is really focused on ensuring that your livable space is safe, sanitary and habitable.”

Private roads may be eligible for aid, but the application can be more complicated because everyone who owns that road should be part of the application, Szymcik said.

When might a town get denied aid?

Baker said FEMA looks at things like whether the town had been properly maintaining and inspecting infrastructure — a bridge, for example — before it was damaged in a recent storm.

“If they haven’t been maintaining something to a certain level, it might not be eligible,” Baker said.

Overall, Baker said, his team asks town officials to tell the story of the item, and FEMA will help determine how it fits within the rules and regulations.

An excavator works on a road that has been reduced to one-way because part of it has fallen toward a river
Vermont Agency of Transportation
Road damage on Route 15 in Hardwick, photographed July 14.

What if a town isn’t sure it’s wise to rebuild a particular thing?

It’s possible for towns to get money for the cost of the hypothetical repair, and then use that money for something else that serves the public, such as fixing a town hall or building a community center, Baker said.

Baker used the example of a flooded road that only served two residents who moved away. If there’s not a reason to continue servicing the road, he said, the town could approach the state and propose an alternate project — as long as the road is safe and secure.

What’s the timeline for towns getting cash in hand?

Baker said his team focuses first on “low-hanging fruit” — reimbursing for the costs of emergency protective measures like barricading roads or doing swift water rescues.

Baker said he does everything possible to send that cash through the state — and from there onto the town — within 35 to 45 days.

There is a lot of paperwork, Baker acknowledged, to ensure FEMA is spending money appropriately and in the proper order.

What’s the status of Vermont’s flood maps?

Flood maps for Vermont are in the process of being updated, Szymcik said. All locations in Vermont that need an update should be finalized between the third quarter of 2023 and the fourth quarter of 2024.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Updated: August 8, 2023 at 7:49 PM EDT
This article was updated on Aug. 8 to reflect additional comments from a FEMA spokesperson. Small Business Administration loans are available to businesses in counties contiguous to declared counties that suffered economic damage, but not to homeowners or renters in those neighboring counties. And the FEMA spokesperson made this note regarding Szymcik's statements about using rental assistance money for other basic needs: "In the case of rental assistance, if applicants cannot demonstrate that they used their rental assistance for temporary housing, they may not be eligible for continued rental assistance." The spokesperson added that aid recipients should keep their receipts and invoices for at least three years in case of a FEMA audit.
Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.