FEMA reverses decision, declares storm a disaster

Marie and Porter Trent applaud the news Saturday that the federal government will be offering aid to Riverhead Town for expenses related to the March storm that sent the couple fleeing from their Horton Avenue home.

Thanks to an about-face by the federal government, Riverhead Town will be eligible for reimbursement of the money it spent wrestling with the aftermath of a monster rainstorm in late March.

And residents who lost their homes or possessions to the flood waters that rushed into Horton and Osborn avenues in Riverhead may also be able to get help.

Officials announced Saturday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, had overturned its previous denial of New York’s request to combine the March 29-30 storm with a previously declared storm — a powerful nor’easter earlier in March — as one disaster.

That means Suffolk County and municipalities like Riverhead are now eligible to recoup direct expenses related to the late March storm. The storm dumped about nine inches of rain across Riverhead and elsewhere and left streets and basements swamped for weeks on end.

“This is very good news,” Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said at a press conference Saturday.

The decision also may improve the odds of some long-term relief for Horton and Osborn avenue residents, some of whom still cannot use their homes because of flood damage, Mr. Bishop said.

The residents could benefit because the designation will increase by millions of dollars the pool of funds available to homeowners for what’s known as hazard mitigation grants, he said. These grants would be applied for through the town or county and would be used to elevate homes or to buy flood-damaged homes and give residents money to move elsewhere, Mr. Bishop said.

However, municipalities throughout the state can compete for the hazard mitigation grant money, explained Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Riverhead Town would have been able to pursue those grants anyway, but thanks to the new designation more money will be supplied to the state by the federal government, Chief Hegermiller said.

“It’s going to be very competitive,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said this week, “It’s not the panacea some people think it is.”

He said the town has yet to determine how much it will seek in reimbursement, though just days after the storm he said the town had already spent about $200,000 on overtime, materials and private contractors.

As for aiding homeowners, state Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) said six owner-occupied homes and a dozen rented homes in the Horton Avenue area were heavily damaged by the late March storm. The county will seek to relocate the families in the owner-occupied homes and to reimburse the owners of the rental properties for economic damages.

Suffolk County currently is searching for county-owned properties to which flood victims could be relocated, said chief deputy county executive Chris Kent.

In addition, the decision strengthens an appeal for disaster mitigation grants to help Riverhead residents by affirming that the storm that flooded homes here is a federally recognized disaster, according to Mr. Bishop.

“I am absolutely elated,” said Linda Hobson, whose Horton Avenue home is now unlivable and still has 11 inches of water in the basement. “I want to commend our elected officials at every level.”

Ms. Hobson said she’s lived in five different places since the storm.

The battle for federal disaster aid was a hard-fought one.

A March 13-15 storm system that hit Long Island met the qualifications for federal disaster aid, but the March 29-30 storm on its own did not. Then, a proposal to have the second storm included as part of the same storm system as the March 13-15 was rejected.

“Inexplicably, the administration denied that claim, even though they had granted exactly similar claims to Connecticut and Rhode Island,” Mr. Bishop said.

Mr. Bishop said that when he learned this, his first action was to call the White House.

“I said I simply could not let this decision stand,” he said.

“Then, we pulled together every level of government” to fight it, he added, eventually culminating in the ruling this weekend.

“So far, our government seems to be right behind us and we really appreciate that,” said Marie Trent, another Horton Avenue resident whose home was flooded.

Ms. Trent’s husband, Porter, was pictured in press photographs following the storm standing in a basement that was filled with water. That basement still has mold and there are cracks in the foundation, Ms. Trent said.

“Everything in the cellar was ruined,” she said.

She’s hoping money to buy a new home can be obtained.

“I wouldn’t want to go through this again,” she said. “I’m hoping this will work out. We’re senior citizens. We can’t afford another mortgage.”

Ms. Hobson and Shirley Coverdale of Long Island Organizing Network, a nonprofit group that has advocated on behalf of the flood victims, both said they are happy that elected officials have all worked together to bring about a solution to the program, but that there’s more to be done.

“It is not over yet,” Ms. Coverdale said. “The LION will continue to roar.

“We will not go away.”

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