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Mapping The Money: Irene Recovery Long And Expensive For Peru Family

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen

VPR's Mapping the Money project is an effort to track where Irene relief funds came from and how they were spent. First, we check in with a family in Peru.

For a time, people who are trying to move on from a flood, like Irene, may feel squeezed financially.

Vermonters Jen and Dave Morris are still paying for their flood-damaged house, even though they’ve moved into a new one.  The mountain top view from their new home in Peru is like a wide hug from nature.

“The sunrise and sunset are gorgeous every day,” says Dave Morris as he gazed at the lush, green peaks of Bromley and Stratton Mountains. “It’s quiet and as you see, we’re far away from water. So, we don’t have to worry about that anymore! It’s just sort of peaceful which is what we needed.”

“It feels really good,” added Morris’ wife, Jen.

Losing their home of ten years in Londonderry was like losing a dear friend. The 200-year-old house that the couple had restored, was their first home .

On the day of the flood, in August  2011, the West River crossed their threshold and rose. Jen and their two young sons escaped on foot, with a dog and cat in tow. Today the house still stands.

“It’s all overgrown and falling apart,” says Dave Morris.  “It’s an eyesore to the town. I just want it gone!”

But the Morrises still own it and are paying many of the expenses.Many owners of flood-damaged property still pay a mortgage. The Morrises would be, if they hadn’t spent $7000 in legal fees to fight it. And they have other costs.

“The taxes on the old house that are in arrears,” says Dave Morris. “And the home equity line of credit on old house.”  And they’re paying taxes and a mortgage on their new house.

Despite the challenges, sitting on the windswept deck of their new home, the couple says they’re grateful for the aid they’ve received. It came from many sources.

The Stratton Foundation came up with the funds for the down payment on their new home, which they bought a year ago. And like other survivors, they’ve had lots of other help.

A stranger sent them a $1200 check.  A church group from Landgrove, Vermont gave them a donation. “As well as Heartworks of Manchester. Not just with money, Jen Morris explains. "They gave a gift card for groceries and for some clothing. It was amazing, the outpouring!  A lot of clients of ours helped.” 

The clients were from the couple’s window-washing business, which caters to second homeowners.  They  brought food and rolled up their sleeves to help out.

For ten months after the flood the couple and their two young sons squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment. At first, they thought their old house could be saved.

“We spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on cleaning supplies initially and dehumidifiers and rental trucks to get what little we had over to the storage units and to get stuff to the dump. It went on and on,”  recalls Jen Morris.

FEMA gave the couple $21,000 and another $5000 towards rent. But  Dave Morris says it wasn’t clear what the money could be spent on.

“Every time you called FEMA it was somebody different,” he says. “Some would say, ‘ Yes, could use it for rent’. Some would say, ‘No you can’t’. ‘Yes, you can use it to buy replacement shoes and clothes.’ ‘No you can’t. It has to go to the house.’ We never really knew.”

Others, whose homes were damaged by Irene, report similar experiences with FEMA.  Even so, FEMA is the major source of funding for most people. 

In October of  2012, more than a year after the flood, FEMA  agreed to buy the Morris’ damaged home at 75% of its pre-Irene value.  Since then, progress towards closing has inched along.

“There were literally months and months and months that went by  with nothing!” says Jen Morris  “Before you know it, you blink an eye and two years have gone by. And you think wow! O.K.! But recently last few months, it’s like, ‘It’s enough. We’re ready!’

Finally, early this month Jen and Dave Morris and the state of Vermont reached agreement on a sale price using funding from FEMA. The family doesn’t know when the closing will occur. But they recognize patience is key.

“I guess it’s typical, stereotypical of the government,” says Jen Morris. “But they’re inundated. They have Sandy victims they’re dealing with now and the tragedy in Oklahoma. And it just continues to go on and on and on. Nothing happens quickly.”

Still, the couple considers themselves lucky. Looking back on what they’ve been through, Dave slips his hand into Jen’s.

“We knew as devastating and difficult and stressful as it was we were going to be O.K. We had each other  And we had amazing friends and family.  Community support was unbelievable!”

The Morrises say they’re on the homestretch towards mending their finances. But the emotional toll of losing their home may take a little longer to shake.

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.
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