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Communities Ramp Up Emergency Preparations To Qualify For Future Disaster Relief

Charlotte Albright
Jeb Spaulding, Secretary of Administration, left, and Joe Flynn, Director of the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, present Jan Sotirakis, of Chittenden, an award for best local emergency management director in Vermont.

Beginning next month, communities in Vermont will need to follow new rules to qualify for state assistance following a disaster. Community leaders learned about the new standards — and about other ways to prepare for emergencies — at an annual conference hosted by the Department of Public Safety.

Joe Flynn took the helm of Vermont’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security soon after Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont. In his lunchtime speech to the Emergency Preparedness Conference at  Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee on Thursday, Flynn noted that Vermont has seen some destructive weather in the three years since Irene’s floods devastated much of the state.

“We have had two federal disaster declarations since I stood here last year. We have a third pending right now with FEMA from July 28. We continue to manage eight open disasters. Vermont ranks only second to Oklahoma for open federal disasters,” said Flynn.

State emergency officials say so far only 25 percent of Vermon'ts communities have met all the criteria in the new Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund.

Some states do not help local communities come up with the 25 percent match needed to release FEMA funding after a disaster. But in Vermont, every town can get the state to kick in at least 7.5 percent of the match for federal relief dollars. They can get even more — 12.5 percent — if they do four things: craft emergency operations plans, update transportation standards, participate in the federal flood insurance program, and create a hazard mitigation plan. If they exceed those standards, they can get additional state help. Ben Rose, Recovery and Mitigation Chief for the Department of Emergency Management, says towns can start by identifying potential hazards.

“If you talk to old timers in any part of the state they can say, well, we know that when it rains hard, these are the places that are going to flood, these are the culverts that blow out again and again, this is the road that always washes out,” Rose said.

But it takes time, effort, and money to turn local wisdom into a set of policies and practices that will unleash help from the new Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund, or ERAF. Jan Sotirakis is helping her Rutland County town of Chittenden prepare for the next disaster, and she says ERAF sets a high bar.

“It’s huge, I mean when you look at the categories of ERAF and you have an emergency operations plan that needs to be developed annually, that’s not something that you just fill in some blanks. You need to give some thought to ... the components for that plan” she said after the ERAF workshop.

State emergency officials say so far only 25 percent of Vermont’s communities have met all the criteria in ERAF. Jan Sotirakis believes that includes her town of Chittenden. In fact, at the conference she received the state’s first annual award for best local emergency management director in Vermont. 

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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