Business & Economy

FEMA rejects state appeal for culvert reimbursements

An excavator clears rubble blocking a culvert along Route 100 in Rochester. VTD/Josh Larkin
An excavator clears rubble blocking a culvert along Route 100 in Rochester after Tropical Storm Irene. VTD File Photo/Josh Larkin

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied the state’s appeal for funding to cover the cost of box culverts for town roads. Regional FEMA officials rejected the request because they said the state does not apply uniform standards for culverts across the town highway system.

The decision could cost towns rebuilding after Tropical Storm Irene hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in FEMA reimbursements, according to sources.

Sue Minter, the Irene Recovery officer, said she is “very disappointed and frustrated” by FEMA’s decision.

“It concerns me deeply that FEMA is undermining our state’s ability to build back stronger which we are committed to doing,” Minter said. “It concerns me because it is exactly the mission of FEMA to reduce risk and mitigate future hazards, and that is what we are doing. By building larger bridges and culverts we are reducing future risks.”

Minter says the state may take its case to FEMA higher ups in Washington, D.C. Her office is meeting with the congressional delegation this week.

Towns damaged by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene have systematically replaced culverts and bridges as part of a massive rebuilding effort of hundreds of miles of roadways in central and southern Vermont. Much of the cost of the new highways and infrastructure is covered by the federal government.

State officials say they required that towns build box culverts in an effort to build infrastructure that will survive the next big flood. FEMA officials say they want to pay for pipe culverts identical to the ones that were there previously. These narrower culverts, however, clogged or washed out during Irene.

FEMA officials originally rejected project worksheets from towns that asked for reimbursement for the larger culverts last spring. The reason cited for the denial of the state’s appeal? FEMA says the state does not have uniform standards for culvert sizes. ANR has discretion to grant permits for culverts depending on which category the project falls into — reporting, non-reporting or individual permits.

The federal agency takes a one-size-fits all approach to culverts, according to the denial letter from Paul Ford, the acting regional administrator for FEMA Region 1.

The denial leaves towns in a no-win situation, according to Steve Jeffrey, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Municipalities can’t get FEMA money without getting a state permit, and they can’t obtain a state permit without meeting Agency of Natural Resources requirements, which means upgrading the pipe culverts to wider concrete box culverts as a safeguard against future flood damage.

“Towns literally are in a Catch-22,” Jeffrey said. “They can’t do what they need to do because these two bureaucracies are fighting with each other.”

State officials say they do not have estimates readily available for the number of towns affected by the decision or a statewide total for the amount towns will be liable for the additional costs. Minter said the state will be conducting a survey of towns for that information.

The state’s Irene Recovery Office applied for the appeal after the town of Townshend’s project worksheet for a box culvert was rejected by the federal agency last spring. The difference in cost between a wider box culvert and narrower pipe culvert installed on Dam Road was about $100,000. Townshend’s application became a test case for the state’s Irene Recovery Office.

Who will pay the difference is an open question. Minter says what isn’t eligible for FEMA reimbursement is a town expense. “At this point we want to make sure FEMA picks up expense,” Minter said. “At this point in time it’s a town responsibility.”

The decision, she said, will not jeopardize other FEMA funding, which is based on a 90 percent federal, 10 percent state and local match.

“Even though the additional scope of work required by ANR to meet state standards we believe FEMA should accept doesn’t mean the rest of the money is in jeopardy,” Minter said. “It’s just the difference between what is deemed eligible and what is not.

Jeffrey says the Vermont League of Cities and Towns will argue “strenuously in the Legislature that any additional cost beyond what FEMA is willing to pay and what state requires towns to build is something the state should pay for.”

A narrow approach?

Mike Kline, who manages the state rivers program, says the state has pursued larger culverts that meet higher environmental standards for two reasons: To protect aquatic organisms (fish and other waterborne species) and to mitigate future hazards from floodwaters and from silt that can divert water and cause further damage to land and structures. Culverts clogged with silt and debris carried by Irene’s floodwaters caused many road washouts and damaged buildings.

The box culverts, which were adopted as part of a new state standard before Irene, are big enough to allow sediment and water to pass through underneath a roadway in the event of a historic flooding event, Kline said.

The problem is, the new permit standard and the larger culverts weren’t widely in use before Irene hit, according to Kline. Nevertheless, he says it’s the right technical standard.

“The state feels very strongly that we don’t want to replace deficient structures with the same structures and set a course for repeated losses,” Kline said.

Many towns have already moved forward and put in the larger structures required by ANR, which means they’ll have to make up the difference in cost. “That’s gonna be a hardship for towns for sure,” he said.

Kline expects that ANR will recommend that the Legislature re-write the language of the stream alteration rules so that the state can meet a standard FEMA will recognize in future.

“It’s unfortunate we’re at this place where we want to support towns and do the right thing,” Kline says. “We want to get the right structure in there and that appears it’s not going to be fully supported by FEMA at this point.”

Minter says she is frustrated with FEMA because the state has gotten a different message from the Federal Highway Administration, which is working with the state to meet the higher environmental standards for state roads.

“I think that they [FEMA officials] are narrowly interpreting their rules,” Minter said. “There is a question as to whether it’s better to build to an engineering based standard as opposed to an environmentally based standard that is science based.”

Correction: We misspelled Mike Kline’s name in the original version of this story.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Gary Stahl

    During Irene the culvert near our house filled with rocks and debris, and what saved our house was the brook’s power, which destroyed the road after the culvert became clogged. But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. For relatively little expense — the added cost of wider culverts — we can protect our houses, our roads and our neighborhoods when the next big flood arrives (and the next big flood will not take 100 years getting here). FEMA’s unwillingness to recognize this is appalling. We don’t have time to wait for a bureaucracy to change its thinking. FEMA should be sued, the sooner the better, so that we can force the agency to consider people instead of its own regulations.

    • Arthur Hamlin

      Same thing happened just up the road from my house. Thankfully my house wasn’t in danger. The brook took out the road on both sides of the culvert which was too small and blocked with debris.
      The State’s approach seems like common sense, and it’s a shame FEMA doesn’t recognize that.