Were Vermont Towns Shorted in Recent Flood Damage Assessment?

Municipal leaders in three central Vermont communities are raising questions about a recent assessment of flash flooding damage to Barre City, Barre Town, and Plainfield.

Earlier this week, the Vermont Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security told the communities that an assessment team tallied $750,000 in damage from a bad storm July 19 to public roads, bridges, culverts, and more. That's short of the $1-million threshold required to request federal aid, the emergency management officials noted.

"I'm shocked," said Jeff Blow, the chair of the Barre Town Selectboard. "For somebody to make the determination that it's only a $750,000 storm, I think they missed something someplace."

Barre City, Barre Town, and Plainfield were hit hard when heavy rain slammed them, causing the Gunner Brook to jump its banks. Runoff from surrounding hillsides also made for a muddy mess in many spots.

It is now nearly two weeks later, and several undermined roads are still blocked off. "It's been incredible to try to get around," driver Aleya Bernatchy told necn. "It's added at least 15 minutes for me every day when I'm driving."

Blow said he wonders if that damage assessment needs a second look. He said repair bids haven't even arrived yet, but the landscape and all the material Barre Town will need should make for very tricky jobs, Blow predicted.

Mayor Thom Lauzon of Barre City told necn he also may requires a re-examination of the damage sites and the initial estimates and documents.

"I'm not faulting or criticizing the state," Lauzon said. "The report may well be correct. But I just want to check and double check. And in the meantime, we're not waiting; we're moving forward and getting help to people who need it."

Lauzon was referring to work by Capstone Community Action, which told necn it has identified more than two dozen people in Barre who suffered extensive damage to private property in the flash flooding. Capstone Community Action said it will work with those people to help get them the support they need to get back on their feet in areas such as housing.

When it comes to public infrastructure, emergency state transportation grants may help fund road and bridge repairs, the Vermont Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security announced this week. In the meantime, Blow said Barre Town is expecting detours will stay in place for four to six weeks.

Bram Tobin, the road commissioner in Plainfield, said the whole system of major storm responses needs a re-examination. He told necn that instead of emphasizing damage tallies after natural disasters, the focus should be on responding to impacted individuals and making repairs to assist communities.

"The system is flawed," Tobin told necn. "The current assessment system has municipal officials sweating this million-dollar number; that's troubling. The emphasis should be on getting roads fixed."

Tobin said it appears to him that severe storm events are going to be happening more often, so the system needs an overhaul, with state and federal stakeholders all looking at ways to get repair work done more efficiently.

Cities and towns with damage are encouraged to contact their VTrans District Technician to discuss potential state emergency transportation grant funding to defray the cost of repairs to public road and bridge infrastructure, the Vermont Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security said this week in a news release.

"VTrans District Techs visited towns to assess damage and offer technical advice, and RPCs reached out to towns to compile damage reports. The good news is damage is limited outside of Barre City, Barre Town, and the town of Plainfield," Vermont Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Joe Flynn said in the release. "However, the news is unfortunate for those towns that suffered damage in the storm as they will not receive federal assistance for repairs."

Private homeowners should report any damage to their city or town, the emergency management officials said. Assistance is available in the form of clean-up kits and volunteers. Homeowners in need of assistance may call 2-1-1 to request help. 

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