Vermonters still awaiting FEMA money

Houses on the river side of Water Street are seen in Northfield, Vt. Sixteen months after Tropical Storm Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved buyouts of 81 flood-damaged properties in Vermont. But none has received any money yet.

Sixteen months have passed since Irene ripped through the spine of the Green Mountains, isolating entire communities and tearing up roads and bridges. Recovery has been slow. Although FEMA has given the green light for towns to buyout 81 homes in Vermont, no one has gotten any money yet.

"I would have expected it within a year, and that's gone by," says Bonnie Pemberton, whose home in Northfield, Vt., qualifies for FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Program.

Under the buyout program, FEMA pays up to 75 percent of a home's value, allowing towns to turn property located in a floodplain into green space. The idea is to prevent future flooding during even more severe storms that scientists predict will be fueled by warming, rising seas.

Pemberton’s home on Water Street sits in Northfield's floodplain, and it was destroyed in Irene’s floods. But for Pemberton and her husband, FEMA's decision to approve their application has so far been a symbolic one.

"We have not seen a penny,” she says. “We have not even seen the paperwork yet."

The delay is causing a lot of stress, and after months of waiting for word from FEMA 33 homeowners in Vermont recently learned that they would be denied buyouts.

Irene Recovery Officer Sue Minter argues FEMA has denied buyouts for several homes that were demolished for health and safety reasons before towns applied for the mitigation program. She says in other parts of the country similar conditions have been accepted.

"If this is the case and we can present more information to FEMA, that's our goal: to help towns and of course homeowners get the money that we think the program should provide for them," Minter says.

Flood mitigation that had seemed black and white has turned many shades of gray. FEMA spokesman David Mace says local officials should have known that demolition of certain homes -- even for health and safety precautions -- disqualifies them for buyouts.

"FEMA certainly doesn't like to play the role of the Grinch,” Mace says. “It’s a benefit-cost analysis that has to be performed to determine that it is in fact in the federal government’s best interest to purchase these homes and remove them from the floodplain."

As the late afternoon sky begins to fade to black, Bonnie Pemberton leaves work at National Life Insurance in Montpelier. She's returning -- once again -- to the home she and her husband have been renting for months from a doctor. Pemberton says she's worried about the heating bills they'll need to pay.

"There was a lot more assistance last year to help us get through [the winter] than there is this year," she says, as a light snow falls.

All of this waiting has eroded Pemberton's hopes and expectations. Still, she's optimistic that they'll eventually get the money -- and that they'll have a new home by the time the leaves turn green in the spring.

About the author

Kirk Carapezza is a reporter for WGBH in Boston where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.

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