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FEMA Closes Vt. Office, Ending Chapter In Post-Irene Recovery

More than two years after Tropical Storm Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is closing up shop in Vermont, leaving a state both frustrated by the agency’s bureaucracy and rebuilt by $250 million in federal aid.

The agency will continue to process buy-outs and reimbursements through its Boston office. 

The rules of the federal bureaucracy didn’t always mesh with the needs of small towns and people hard-hit by the flood.

Before Irene, Karin Hardy lived in a 150-year-old house in Jamaica. She points to where it stood before it was swept away by Ball Mountain Brook

“The brook, it jumped it’s little bed,” Hardy recalled. “And took all this land, coming all this way over. Everything was gone.”

Her home hit a bridge and smashed into smithereens.

Within days a FEMA case manager met Hardy on her property and for a while checked in with her almost everyday.

“He had come from another disaster somewhere,” said Hardy. “And I was amazed at how he just kind of traveled around the country as the front-line case worker for people.

He quickly arranged for relief funding to be deposited in Hardy’s bank account. In all, FEMA gave  more than $23 million to individuals in Vermont. 

Mark Landry is the Federal Coordinating Officer from FEMA who oversaw the recovery in Vermont for the past year and a half. He said since Hurricane Katrina the agency has changed.

“The internal effort [is] to really focus on survivors,” he said. “And to focus on communities.”

Four months after the flood, Sue Minter became the state’s Irene Recovery Officer. She said her jaw dropped when she first walked into FEMA’s Vermont office.

“It was an enormous operation,” remembered Minter. “It was a beehive of activity.”

Minter soon realized Vermont needed to form a close relationship with this big federal agency.

“With all of the crises that we were managing of every minute of every day, we hadn’t really yet turned our attention to being the partner FEMA needed us to be,” said Minter.

But partnering also meant standing up for the state’s needs, such as rebuilding larger culverts and bridges to withstand future floods. Minter said at first, FEMA couldn’t fully reimburse that work.

“We felt that it was our job to push back as hard as we could within what we saw as our rights within the law,” said Minter. “And in the end we gained tens of millions of federal dollars for communities across the state.”

FEMA gave more than $200 million to cities and towns to rebuild. Newfane Select board Chair Jon Mack says he’s grateful for the funding that helped keep his town solvent.

“Certainly FEMA’s help was instrumental in our ability to recover from that damage quickly.”

But Mack says as the days after Irene turned into months, the first FEMA  representatives left. New ones arrived. That caused problems.

“We would have one FEMA rep who would tell us that we definitively must do something in such and such a way,” recalled Mack. “Only to have another FEMA representative replace that person and reverse what the first one had told us, without even an apology for the reversal!”

That slowed down repairs and reimbursement.

Some individuals say they also got misleading information from FEMA. One property owner was told it was OK to demolish his damaged house, only to learn later that that had made him ineligible for a buyout. Mark Landry of FEMA said the agency has to continue to improve its training. 

"People who have gone through the disaster and people working for FEMA, too, all seem to agree the red tape and the bureaucratic process is very difficult." - Karin Hardy, who lost her home in Tropical Storm Irene.

“One of the more challenging things is just maintaining an at-ready work force,” said Landry. “At a moments notice to be able to cascade in and provide very detailed guidance to people. And it varies on the experience of those folks. No question about it.” 

FEMA has promised $13.6 million for buying flood-damaged properties. But about a dozen homes that were destroyed aren’t eligible, including four in Jamaica. The reason? They weren’t in the official flood zone on national flood insurance maps. Karin Hardy said FEMA should have flexibility when its criteria don’t fit the reality of a flood.

“People who have gone through the disaster and people working for FEMA, too, all seem to agree the red tape and the bureaucratic process is very difficult,” said Hardy. “And in my opinion, that’s the big thing that needs to change.” 

FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Mark Landry said the agency is working to update the flood maps and change its culture.

“We shouldn’t be asking people to adjust to the bureaucracy,” said Landry. “We should adjust the bureaucracy to the people.”

Sue Minter said it was an incredible gift that FEMA was here supporting the state and that Vermont has a stronger recovery thanks to FEMA.

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