FEMA won’t reimburse town for storm costs

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has again denied any federal aid to the East End, where businesses, homeowners and municipalities suffered extensive flood damage after a monster rainstorm in late March.

A June 3 letter from FEMA administrator Craig Fugate to Governor David Paterson rejected the state’s request to have the storm of March 29 and 30 considered to be part of the March 13-15 storm system. The late March storm didn’t do enough damage on its own to qualify for aid under FEMA’s guidelines.

Now officials are planning to appeal that ruling, possibly as soon as Friday.

“I am at a loss for words to try and understand that decision,” Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said at a press conference last Friday. “To me, it is inexplicable, it is indefensible, and it is a decision that we cannot allow to stand.”

The state’s two U.S. senators also vowed to fight the ruling.

“This decision was flat wrong and we are going to fight tooth and nail to reverse it,” said Senator Charles Schumer.

“It is unacceptable how similar requests were granted for neighboring Connecticut and Rhode Island for the same storm system. We must appeal this decision immediately,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.

Mr. Bishop met with federal, state, county and local officials Friday to focus on what has to be done to overturn the ruling.

Even had the request been granted, it would not have provided aid directly to the Riverhead residents whose homes were damaged. Nine families still can’t return to their homes on Horton Avenue, the ground zero of flood-ravaged Suffolk County.

Instead, the request only would have been for aid to municipalities to pay for things like overtime costs and road repairs.

“The individual aid is the piece that is falling into this gaping hole in the safety net,” Mr. Bishop said. He said he will take the lead in proposing federal legislation that will help individuals whose homes suffered damage in neighborhoods that did not meet FEMA’s threshold, which requires 100 homes to be lost.

Mr. Bishop said the municipal aid can be used for “pre-disaster mitigation,” which would include things like elevation of homes in flood areas as well as community buyouts of those homes, in which the individual homeowner could then use the money to relocate.

In the buyout program, the federal government usually pays about 75 percent of the cost, with the local town or county government paying the rest, Mr. Bishop said.

He acknowledged that even the 25 percent of the buyout program “would be a reach, if not impossible,” for town government now, given the state of the economy. But the town could possibly contribute in-kind services and have that qualify toward the 25 percent, he said.

Residents and those helping them vowed to keep fighting.

“We will be absolutely relentless in pursuing a real solution for the families of Horton Avenue,” said Shirley Coverdale of Long Island Organizing Network, a nonprofit group leading the fight to help displaced residents. “Their houses need not be put on stilts when the area is full of toxic mold. I wouldn’t ask my family to live in that, nor is it publicly responsible to ask anyone else to.

“We will not fall through the cracks,” said Linda Hobson, who still cannot live in her Horton Avenue home, and who has been helping the other residents get help. She’s lived in five different places since the flood, she said.

So far, Ms. Hobson said, the Horton Avenue Relief Fund, a grass roots effort, is the only assistance the residents have gotten, as government programs continue to fail them.

The Small Business Administration loans that were made available to help the residents didn’t help, she said, because she was the only one to qualify, and the 5.25 percent interest rate she would have had to pay was too much.

“I would have had to pay $480 per month over 30 years,” she said. “I’d be 74 by the time I re-bought my house.”

State Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) said there is $15 million available statewide for hazard mitigation that is awarded competitively, and he believes that money should be sought for Horton Avenue.

He estimates that to buy out the 18 damaged homes on Horton Avenue would use about $6 million of the $15 million available, but he said no one else is seeking the money now.

Ms. Coverdale said the area where the flooded homes are located on Horton Avenue was originally a swamp.

“Homes should never have been built on it, and some dirt was thrown over the swamp and it was zoned residential for some reason and it was sold, essentially, to poor people who could not afford to locate elsewhere,” she said. “Flood insurance was not even an option for most of these people, and what is happening to them is absolutely unconscionable.”

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