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Sen. Peter Welch discusses the one-year anniversary of the flooding

A man in a suit sits at a table and looks off-camera
Mariam Zuhaib
Associated Press
Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., listens during a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry oversight hearing on the Department of Agriculture on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Washington.

A new report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee finds that flooding could cost the U.S. between $180 and $496 billion dollars annually in losses. Sen. Peter Welch cites that economic burden as one of the main reasons why he's fighting for additional flood recovering and resiliency funding.

Welch joined Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak to discuss the one year anniversary of the summer 2023 flooding, former President Donald Trump's recent convictions, nonprofit theater funding and more

This segment of the conversation on flood resiliency has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let's start our conversation around flood resiliency, as the one year anniversary of the summer 2023 flooding is right around the corner. You are a member of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Just this week, it shared a new report that shows that flooding could cause as much as $496 billion in losses each year in the United States. That is a massive number. Where did those losses come from?

We had our huge flood [in Vermont] just a year ago. Today, Florida is underwater in many, many places. What's really, really tough is that this is going to keep flooding. And what we're seeing in Vermont, of course, is the awareness that we have to build back in a more resilient fashion. So this is absolutely a product of climate change, and it just is a reminder of the urgency of addressing that issue.

In this report, it noted some of the the sources of those losses — the need for infrastructure upgrades for resiliency, commercial impacts, decreased tax revenue and more. I'm sure you've witnessed many of these here in Vermont in the past year. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you've seen on the ground?

The flood was a year ago and [we] immediately found, in the flood, it was all hands on deck, and neighbors helped neighbors dig out the mud and muck. Towns reacted and people did their best to get back on their feet. But now, a year later, I just recently went to Barre, I went to Johnson, I went to Hardwick. If it was your farm, if it was your business, if it was your home, you're still suffering. And FEMA is tremendous in the immediate aftermath. They come in en force and really provide immediate emergency assistance. But a year down the road, there's infrastructure problems — like in Johnson with their pump station, [or] like in Hardwick, where public resources were demolished along the bike path.

And this is where it gets tough with FEMA. Because at this point, you need folks who have flexibility, and you need FEMA officials who can make quick decisions, and also the money that is necessary. The best money is the one that goes through the disaster relief program through the CBDG program. But the bottom line is, it's flexible. And you've got to have local leadership. So that's what I'm working on with my colleagues, particularly [Sen.] Brian Schatz from Hawaii. And of course, they suffered that terrible fire around the time we had our terrible flood.

So that is going to be something that I think we've got to get to Vermont — the flexible funds in these towns that are going to help the farmers, that are going to help the town officials deal with infrastructure, and hopefully homeowners who are either going to get a buyout or hopefully get back in their home.

Have you been satisfied with FEMA's flood response in Vermont over the past year?

I have been. They came in and I thought did a tremendous job. They were very responsive in their administration. But here's what I've noticed: FEMA does not have the capacity for the long-term rebuilding of a community. They have the capacity for an immediate, short-term response to the disaster. And that's where I think we've got to step back and reform the processes.

And what I've seen is that the leadership that is going to address what's going on in Barre or in Johnson or in Ludlow — that has to be local, and they've got to be given flexibility. Because those folks are totally invested in the well-being of their community. And this is where FEMA needs some adjustment, because the FEMA folks now who are attending to these issues, they come and they go. There's a lot of turnover, and they don't have the flexibility. And that's why these disaster relief funds, where there is flexibility, and where there can be local leadership, I think is so essential for the long-term recovery of communities.

Last week, you introduced the Rural Recovery Act, a bill that would essentially create a new program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide rural development offices with more immediate funding for emergency recovery. This was co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. What exactly would a bill like this change for Vermonters if another flood were to hit?

Essentially, it would create that flexibility I've just been talking about and empower the local leaders to provide their response. You know what I've seen with the floods that we had last year in July, and what we had going back to [Tropical Storm] Irene [in 2011], was that it was local select boards that got out the Rolodex and started calling up people in the community to come out with their backhoes or their front end loaders or do whatever it was, and get whatever equipment was needed to respond. Well, that flexibility, you need to have down the road. The immediate response is absolutely urgent and essential. But there are things that require long term effort, because it's rebuilding. And this legislation would essentially create the flexibility and the resources for those rural communities that don't have that administrative infrastructure to deal with the massive impact of a big flood. Sen. Shaheen is a great ally on this, and Bernie [Sanders] and I will be working on this along with [Rep.] Becca [Balint].

Broadcast live on Thursday, June 13, 2024, at noon; 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.