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Gov. Phil Scott on flood recovery, rebuilding and the education secretary search

 A man in a button-down shirt speaks at a podium in front of maps of Vermont
Bob Kinzel
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a news conference about flood recovery on July 19.

Many Vermonters in towns and cities that were hit hard by the July floods are still working to clean up their homes and businesses. Others are looking to the future and having tough conversations about when and where to rebuild.

Gov. Phil Scott joined Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak to talk through where flood recovery stands from the state's perspective.

A transcript of the conversation is below. It has been edited for clarity and concision.

Mikalea Lefrak: Governor, first, are you satisfied with the amount of federal aid that Vermont has received in the wake of the flooding?

Gov. Phil Scott: Well, first of all, FEMA has been doing a great job, have a lot of people on the ground. In fact, they have over 400 people — somewhere between 400 and 500 people here assisting us and doing everything they can. Is it going to be enough in the end? That remains to be seen. But thus far, they've been doing their part and they've been very attentive.

And we've heard from folks over the last month, month plus who are not in counties that are covered by the federal disaster declaration, specifically Addison County, which saw a lot more flooding in early August. From your seat, what are the chances that people in say, Addison County will be able to eventually access some type of federal relief funds?

Well, two separate issues there, maybe three separate issues in some respects, because most every county in the state was designated for relief for public assistance. And so that's really important, you know, for the roads and bridges and town infrastructure and so forth, any of those are covered, for those that storm in – or the series of storms, I should say, in the first part of July.

In question, the individual assistance, Addison County did not make it in terms of what they use for a formula to meet that threshold. So that is problematic for those in Addison County. And we really went above and beyond, I think, to try and get people to call in. And it's unfortunate because because it's really about, you know, a county line that is designated. On one side of the line, individual assistance is being given to those in that county, and on the other side they aren’t, and it really is, you know, half a mile could make the difference. And that's something that we're going to contemplate as we move forward.

Secondly, typically, with FEMA, they take a weather event. So when you have a blizzard, it's about that event, that one storm system. With Irene, it was one storm system. But this has been much different. We have, in a matter of about a week, from July 7 to 17, for instance, there may have been six, seven different storm systems that came through and added to the damage. And we've had a number of systems since then, and in August, in particular. So we are going to seek another declaration, see if we meet that threshold in order to ask for more assistance for those other storms. But it's something again, in the aftermath, we're going to have to talk with FEMA – because this has been atypical, but this may be more typical in the future with climate change.

You just mentioned the importance of calling in and reporting damages. Now, VTDigger reported that 211 — which is the United Way run hotline that residents have been encouraged by officials to call with flood related questions or problems — 211 has a pretty big backlog. And some have said that that's a result of years of underfunding for the service. What's your response to that? And are there plans to improve 211’s funding and services?

Yeah, these are conversations we're going to have to have in the aftermath. They were overwhelmed. And I can understand how that happens. It happened to us during the pandemic, when we were hit with shutting businesses down and so forth. And our Labor Department [Unemployment Insurance] system was overrun. So I have some sympathy for those that were involved.

This isn't a criticism — it's just that they didn't have a plan on how to scale up at that point. Once they told us they had a backlog, which was after it started accumulating for a few days, we surge resources to them and eliminated quickly. So it's not — it wasn't a matter of staffing, I think it was a matter of planning for how and when to ask for the help in these types of situations. So I think we can do better in the future. It's something that we're going to have to talk about, I think at this point in time, they're able to handle the calls coming in. But really during that situation, that's when they were inundated, overwhelmed, and they didn't raise their hand to tell us that they needed some help.

I and many, many people have been reading coverage out of Hawaii of the deadly fires in Maui. And much of that coverage has highlighted some of the shortcomings of the alert system there. You know, folks say if we'd been alerted earlier, we could have gotten more people out quickly and averted some of those tragic deaths. Luckily, Vermont did not see the number of fatalities that Hawaii did during its own natural disaster last month. But I did want to ask you about Vermont's alert system in light of what happened in July and then what we've seen in Hawaii and elsewhere. Do you have confidence in Vermont's Emergency Alert System? Are there any changes that need to be made for the future?

Well, we certainly want more people to sign up for the emergency alerts through, on their phones in order to do that. Thus far, I think it's worked fairly well. It's been building over the last few years. But can we do better? Obviously, we can all do better, but it might take more emphasis on signing up for the alerts.

Well, let's go to the phones … Let's start with George in Topsham. George, you're on the air. Go ahead.

[George:] Yeah. So governor, my question for you is, as I drive through Barre, on my way to Montpelier, where I'm currently working in the woods, I've seen all the cleanup and everything. And I see that this low-lying shopping center, by all appearance appears to be getting cleaned up, ready to be used again. It's the one that has China Moon and Joann Fabric. And it's very low. And it was underwater during Irene and it was badly underwater this time. And it seems like it should be growing grass and cattails and not selling things. 

Well, thank you, George. Gov. Scott, we've received a number of questions from listeners about rebuilding in these low-lying areas. So what are your thoughts on George's comment?

Yeah, you know, we're going to have to have some really tough conversations about just that in the coming months and years. There are some areas that should not be built in. Climate change is real. This is – we've seen these catastrophic storms, not once in a century, but once in a decade, and it appears it’s going to happen again. But I think it's important as well, to make sure that the listeners understand there are no public assets going to that. Those are commercial locations. And they own those locations. And if they seek to rebuild, they're doing it on their dime, so to speak.

But these are again, conversations that we're going to have to have. We simply need to prevent some of these catastrophic losses in downtown of Montpelier, for instance, or the downtown of Barre, we need more storage capacity, we need to allow for the stockpiling of water during these events so it doesn't come all at once. So again, there are different strategies to do that. And we’re going to have to contemplate them. And they're going to have to be, you know, voluntary buyouts in the future, to make sure that we have the room for the floodwaters to surge into those areas before they meander down through the Winooski, in this case.

We had on the head of Vermont's voluntary buyout program on the show a couple of weeks back and I'm curious, governor, if you think that the state should be contributing more funding to that program?

Well, I've asked the congressional delegation to think big, in some respects, to ask for supplemental funding, so that we can maybe in looking at areas — Barre, maybe Montpelier, Berlin, so forth – where we can utilize some of the funding to use for this buyout — our buyouts, voluntary buyouts. We can't do it all on our own. We just simply don't have the resources to do that. But again, mitigation is, is part of the strategy here, and making sure that we can store this water during these torrential downpours.

If I remember correctly, it's funded about 75 percent by the federal government right now, 25 percent by the state. There's a lot of demands on federal dollars right now, particularly around emergency assistance. If Vermont's congressional delegation is unable to secure more funding for something like the buyout program, can you see the state stepping in with more funds? Is that an area that you could say yes to?

Yeah, I believe that we should be doing more of that. And we're, I don't know if there's a cap on that. You might know. I didn't know about the 75 percent, 25 percent. But I don't know whether there's a cap associated with that. Or whether it's, you know, can be any amount of money. And if it's any amount of money, then we should definitely with that type of a match. We should be doing more of it.

Well, let's go back to the phones. We have a call from Steve in Montpelier. Steve, what's your question for the governor? 

[Steve:] Yeah, first, I was delighted to hear the governor acknowledge that we're having a lack of planning. He's heard from me before on that topic. But the Emergency Eats program, as I understand it — I've been researching it since it was announced as having started last Monday. And there are displaced folks from Montpelier in Burlington. And there is no — nobody knows about the program there. So I told some folks about it. And they went to Skinny Pancake and were told, you know, nope, we don't know nothing about it. And so it's one thing to think in months and years out, but it's another when folks are doing without meals. And I would like to know how this dysfunction still exists after this long time.

Thank you, Steve.

Well, this was just put up and resurrected, in some respects. It's different than Everyone Eats program that we had during the pandemic. But it's similar in some respects, and it was just put back into use maybe a week or two ago. And I just want to step back for a minute. It's Aug. 14, and the initial storms were the 11th, I believe. So it seems like it's been, you know, months, for some, years, but it's been one month. And to put these programs up, get them up and going within the month and this one has been probably in the last week, week and a half. We will get you, Mikaela, this information, so that you can communicate this to your listeners. And we're doing the best we tend to get the information out. It's difficult to get information out, to find a forum that everyone is listening to. We'll do the best we can during our press briefings and we'll ask you to broadcast this as well. But we'll get back to you with this so you can do what you can to get these important facts out there.

More from Vermont Public: COVID-era food security program revived for flood impacted Vermonters

Gov. Scott, as likely every listener to the show is well aware, Vermont was facing an extreme housing shortage before the floods that's only been exacerbated by the flood damage. Do you know how many Vermonters are now homeless as a result of the floods? And what, if anything, the state can do to expedite more affordable housing?

Yeah, first, I just want everyone to understand, if you are displaced from your home, FEMA is there to help. There is a will put you up in temporary housing while you get your life back together and put your house back together. Or in the case of mobile homes, if you're hard-hit there as well, they do the same and and provide for assistance for up to 18 months, I believe, while you get back on firm footing. So I'm not sure that, if there are people who are homeless because of the flood. There is help available through FEMA.

Well, we received an email from the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp in Barre, who writes, “The state's flood response has put a great deal of emphasis on businesses devastated by the July floods, but the residential destruction is enormous. Twelve percent of Barre’s 4,200 households have been severely affected, and in Berlin an entire mobile home park of 30 to 40 units was completely destroyed. It's the same story in many other communities. More than a month after this flooding, why do we still not have a full picture of the damage to our housing stock? And more importantly, given the scale of destruction on top of the current housing crisis? How do we secure funds for Vermonters to build back to ensure safe, affordable housing for all? In my opinion,” the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp concludes, “the funding the state has proposed is just a drop in the bucket.” Gov. Scott, what are your thoughts?

Well, we put a significant amount of money into housing, investment in housing. As you might recall, when we received the over billion dollars from the feds, we prioritized that into five buckets and one of the buckets was housing. So $250 million of that money went into housing, and there's been hundreds of millions since. So there, there's been a great deal of focus on housing itself. But we can't build it fast. And we don't have the workforce to accomplish that. And to get through it. I mean, we, again, seven years ago, when we put together the $37 million housing bond that leveraged another couple $100 million in private assets. And, and we're still seeing the benefits of that to this day that hasn't been cycled through. So this $250 million is going to leverage more money and it's going to accomplish what we hope in the coming years, but it doesn't, it isn't fast enough. I agree. And we're doing everything we can to expedite that.

Well, speaking of needing immediate help, we have a call from Linda in Barre, who I believe has a request on that very topic. Linda, what are your thoughts for the governor? 

[Linda:] Hey, thanks for taking my call. I live in Barre. We were flooded out badly on Second Street. We have two houses on one property. One's an ADU [accessory dwelling unit] that the state and city approved. And FEMA won't help us with the ADU. FEMA disaster won't help us with that, FEMA flood won't help us with that. Both of our houses have no heating systems, no electric systems, and barely plumbing systems at this point. No hot water and winter's coming. And now we hear that we have to mitigate our houses and move the furnace upstairs and stuff. We have no money to do that. So I want to know what the state is going to do to help that.?Or should we just abandon our houses, foreclose on our – you know, not pay our mortgages? What should we do? We need to have an answer soon. We have no heat, no water, barely water, and no electricity. And no help from FEMA. Nothing.

And I'm so sorry you and your family are going through that. You know there's many others in your shoes right now. Gov. Scott?

Yeah, first of all, Linda, if you could call our number 828-3333, we can steer you in the right direction. FEMA is there to help and if they aren't, there has been some communication problem, because they will put you up for up to 18 months if you've been displaced from your home. So we need to work on that. And we can help you in that regard. So give us a call at 828-3333, and we'll see what we can do to clear this up.

And just to be clear there, though, they'll pay for rental assistance. They're not providing apartments, as we all know, extreme housing shortage right now, it's not too easy to find those apartments, even if you have the rental assistance.

Exactly. There's a number of different strategies they're using at this point in time. And we are working hand in hand with them to try and accomplish that. But yeah, there's no doubt that we, as you said before, we had a housing crisis pre-flooding, and this just exacerbated the situation.

Governor, let's talk a bit more big picture here for a moment. Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas recently sent you an open letter pushing for more action on climate change. In light of this recent spate of flooding, have you changed your thinking in any way on climate mitigation efforts or on the amount of state funding that needs to go towards addressing this climate disaster that we're facing?

Well, I think your description of changing my mind on climate change mitigation and so forth, I think I've clearly shown that I've been willing to do whatever we can to invest in mitigation that I'm the one that said that we needed to put $250 million out of the ARPA money to go towards that, in general. And so it wasn't the Legislature that did that. We put that forward, they went along with it. And, and we're doing just that. So we need to do more in terms of mitigation. And that's been my point — that along with reducing our carbon emissions, and as we transition to an electric future with less reliance on fossil fuels, we've got to balance that with more mitigation measures. So I'm all on board, as well, we've been doing, that's what we're, we're trying to do. But we can't just focus on carbon emissions, there's got to be a balance with mitigation steps as well.

More fromVermont Edition: Vermont's secretary of state says new contractor registry will help with flood recovery

In her letter, Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas referenced, I believe, your opposition to some initiatives like the Affordable Heat Act and the Global Warming Solutions Act. I'm wondering if you might have a direct response to that letter… It sounds like you might be saying that, you know, while she’s seen taking issue with your stance on climate mitigation and funding some of these programs, you're saying, Secretary, that's not the case at all?

Well, again, we can go through some of the reasons why that I vetoed those pieces of legislation, but it wasn't about the goal. It was about how we get there. And I veto them mostly due to fundamental disagreements about, you know, how legislators in some of these activist groups, about how we get to those shared goals. And I think that we need to do whatever we can, but we can't hurt the very people we're trying to help. I think with the with, particularly with some of the initiatives with the latest initiatives that went to the Public Utility Commission, I fundamentally disagree with a carbon tax, because I think it hurts the most vulnerable. And I think we should provide incentives for people to do the right thing, not punish them. So again, it's not the goals. It's the how we get there. And we just fundamentally disagree. But at the end of the day, they overrode those two – the latest, latest bill and the one previous to that, the Global Warming Solutions Act was, again, not providing any solutions. It was basically just giving it to the Public Utility Commission and asking them to do it. So again, we just disagree on how we get there. But we don't disagree on the goals.

Now, governor, ahead of today's conversation, we received a number of questions about Montpelier specifically and potential rebuilding efforts there. Now, of course, Montpelier is the state capital. There are many state government offices there that were heavily damaged by the floods. Rebecca in Montpelier asks, “Given that Vermont is going to experience flooding more often, how flexible, nimble and fast can Gov. Scott's administration be enacting on remediating flooding? For example, in Montpelier, could your administration consider turning the parking lots running along the river into areas that can absorb more of the river’s overflow?" First, governor, is this something even that your administration would address directly? Or is that the space of, you know, Montpelier’s local government or another office?

Well, I think it's much broader than that. Again, I think this is something that we'll have to contemplate with the Army Corps of Engineers, our Agency of Natural Resources, localities and so forth about working together towards a common solution. Some of it will entail doing just that — creating more reservoirs, as I said earlier, it's about capacity, doing this and allowing the storage of water. But you know, it's uphill to where we need to do some of this work as well, not just in the city, once it gets there, we need to create more opportunities for storage before it gets to the cities. And that goes into Barre as well. And the damage that we saw there, specifically, in Barre – and I’m particularly sensitive with Linda living on Second Street, most of those First, Second, Third and Fourth Streets — that's my hometown of Barre — were devastated. Many, many, many homes, up to 40, 50 homes were impacted, right in that one concentrated area. So we need to look, again, upstream of that to create more capacity. So it's not just in one area. It's a multiple, you know, series of remediation that we should do and mitigation. But it's going to take all of us, the feds with the Army Corps, again, Natural Resources, and the communities to all do our part in order to create some relief.

We've heard from a number of small business owners in hard-hit communities, including in Montpelier, who say, you know, yes, we've heard that there are loans available from the Small Business Administration, the SBA, but you know, some of these business owners are older or just facing circumstances in which a loan won't work for them. Could you talk us through what what supports particularly from the state are available for small businesses outside of federal loans?

Well, again, we went to work really quickly to stand up this $20 million grant program. It is designed to help those businesses, those very businesses that you're talking about, to reopen and hire employees as soon as possible. And we know it won't be near enough, but I believe the state has to do what we can, within the resources we have to help. But we're going to need some more help. We're going to need the congressional delegation to help us in terms of a supplemental bill and aid that it can provide relief at some of these businesses. So it's all hands on deck. There's no easy answers here. But we're going to have to work together in order to provide some relief, and some incentives and get them back on their feet. And all the while providing for mitigation in those buildings to make sure that we do whatever we can to help prevent it from happening again.

Vermont's Board of Education recently launched its search for the new Secretary of Education about five months after former Secretary Dan French announced that he was stepping down. Now, this is a little bit of insider baseball. But essentially, that process couldn't start until you, Gov. Scott, initiated it by writing a letter to the Board of Education. Why did it take until late July for you to do that?

Well, a couple of reasons. First, it wasn't planned. I didn't realize Secretary French was leaving quite so soon. And so we decided at that point, we put — we made the deputy secretary, Secretary Bouchey, in charge as acting secretary — she's done it before. We have a great relationship. And so we decided we want to get through the legislative session first, before we move forward on asking that the Board of Education to make those suggestions to say to me, in order to pick from. So it was just a matter of timing, certainly, with now with the storms and so forth, it's maybe slowed it up a bit more, but that the Agency of Education is in good hands with Secretary Bouchey.

Now, we received a couple of different emails from listeners about this search for a new Secretary of Education. Cynthia and Mac in Calais wrote to us and said that Vermont spends twice the national average on special education but 83 percent of Vermont's children with disabilities are below basic in fourth grade reading on The Nation's Report Card. They're wondering if the new secretary of education will have experience to reduce that inequity around reading for kids with disabilities.

And we actually got a similar comment from Jeff in Shaftsbury, who says that our students with dyslexia in the state are not getting the services they require, the students often get subpar reading services that don't help them close the gaps to their peers.

Is this an issue that you, Gov. Scott, are hoping to address with the new secretary of education and our legislative body? 

So just to sum those two together, Gov. Scott, on your list of priorities for this new secretary word is, you know, a person who has experience in working with students with disabilities and getting those reading levels up to on par?

Well, learning loss has been something that we have been focused on since the end of the pandemic, and we'll continue to focus on that. The secretary will be balanced, be able to try and focus on all the issues that we need to focus on at this point in time, and then envisioning the future is well, but it takes a partner – we need the Legislature to work with us, and they have some of their own ideas, as you know. So we'll have to have a secretary that is able to work with the Legislature because they hold a lot of the cards in terms of where we go next, as well as the local communities because, you know, Vermont’s a little bit different. It's a lot about local control in terms of education. So, again, it's not the secretary, it's not the Legislature, it's not just the local community. But all of us have to work together in order to provide for the student, what's best for our kids. So, again, balancing all that is important, having the right personality to do that, in the right expertise is important. But it isn't one person that’s going to solve this issue.

Well, the start of the new school year is just around the corner, at the end of this month, do you have a timeline for when you want this new secretary of education to be in place?

Well, again, Secretary Bouchey is well qualified. We're in good shape at this point in time. So want them to take their time and provide the names that they need to provide to us that have the expertise that's needed for the future.

Well, I think we have time for one more phone call. Let's go to Amanda in Montpelier. Amanda, you're on the air with the governor. Go ahead.

[Amanda:] Oh, hi. I'm just calling just to say thank you. Like from the bottom of my heart. Thank you, Gov. Scott. … I just think you're awesome. And I'm not a Republican, not that — whatever.

Well, thank you, and I appreciate it.

We actually also just got a phone call that we didn't we don't have time to take, but I'll sum it up. It was somebody asking, Gov. Scott, about your thoughts on the upcoming presidential election and whether you think that your brand of Republicanism might spread, might have any effect on the National Republican Party? Or if this is a brand specific to Vermont?

Well, I hope it's not just specific to Vermont. We have the National Governors Association, it's being led by Gov. Cox from Utah. And he's talking about this very issue. It's something he and I've spoken about before, about how do we agree to disagree in a way that, you know, creates that respect and civility that we desperately need, and it's so polarized throughout the country. So, it takes all of us doing the right thing and talking about it in the right way. And again, we can disagree, we can debate feverishly, but we should treat each other better, and just be kinder and better human beings, and compassionate. And so, again, you know, you can be a fiscal conservative, but you can be compassionate as well and treat each other better.

Well, Gov. Phil Scott, we know you have another obligation to get to so we will honor that, let you go. Thank you so much for your time today on Vermont Edition. We really appreciate it.

Thank you, Mikaela.

Broadcast at noon Monday, Aug. 14, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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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.