There appears to be a misperception among some in the public that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to pay for larger culverts or other improved infrastructure to replace or repair those damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. This is simply not true.
FEMA can and does provide funding for additional measures that will improve a facility’s ability to resist similar damage in future events. FEMA provides this assistance as Section 406 hazard mitigation as part of the public assistance funding for the permanent repair of disaster-damaged public infrastructure, including culverts and bridges. These measures must be cost-effective and are generally limited to 15 percent of project costs. Additional funding of certain other measures, such as installation of rip-rap and headwalls, may also be eligible where they are cost-effective and feasible.
So far FEMA has paid out at least $6.2 million in Section 406 mitigation funding to the state of Vermont and municipalities for these kinds of upgrades on dozens of Irene-related projects around the state.
In addition to Section 406 mitigation funding, FEMA has provided potentially millions more in upgrades required to meet codes and standards.
Where there has been a disagreement between FEMA and the state and some communities is over the question of upgrading infrastructure beyond this level to meet the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’s stream alteration permit requirements.
As a general rule, FEMA will pay to upgrade infrastructure such as bridges and culverts, to meet state, county or local codes and standards. However, FEMA’s rules require these codes and standards to meet several criteria to be eligible for reimbursement.
Some are fairly basic. For example, the code or standard must have been in place at the time of the federally declared disaster. Others are more complex, and the criterion that has been at the center of this disagreement is one that says the code or standard cannot be discretionary in nature or enforcement.
This means that standard must be applied the same way to every project, every day of the year. FEMA has determined that ANR’s stream alteration permit does not meet this criterion.
The public policy rationale for these criteria is simple: Federal assistance is based on the standards a community has in place and adheres to at the time of a disaster. This provides a fair and consistent playing field for all communities across the country, and it encourages adoption of appropriate standards that a community can benefit from at all times, and not just when a federal disaster is declared.
FEMA recognizes the need to rebuild infrastructure better and stronger to be able to withstand the next natural disaster that might strike. However, the question of how much stronger — and how much FEMA will pay — is guided by federal law and policy.
FEMA will continue to pay to upgrade infrastructure damaged by Irene to the maximum extent allowed by law.
Mark Landry is in charge of FEMA’s disaster recovery efforts and support to the state of Vermont.MORE IN Perspective
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