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Conn. towns struggle to seek federal storm aid

By Mike Patrick
Republican American / December 31, 2011
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WATERBURY, Conn.—Clever pundits hadn't even started to call it "Snowtober" yet when Cheshire realized it needed to take an extreme approach to one of the most extreme weather events the town -- and state -- had seen in years.

Shortly after the Oct. 29 snowstorm that uprooted trees, closed roads and knocked out power all over town, the municipality called on residents to take whatever debris they had -- sticks, branches, limbs, indeed whole trees -- and pile it all in one of several designated spots in town parks.

They did, and the piles grew and grew. At one point, one of them was the size of two colonial-style houses put together.

Then, town officials took photos of the mountains of debris and sent them off to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as proof of the need for federal financial assistance.

"That's one way of capturing fixed quantity," said Joseph Michelangelo, Cheshire's director of public works and town engineer. "They're looking for documents, pictures, GPS coordinates, things like that."

By most accounts, FEMA is a receptive, yet fastidious government agency willing to come through with federal disaster money, providing the towns and state cross all of their T's and dot their I's.

FEMA could be authorized to reimburse impacted communities 75 percent of their storm-related costs. That's a significant amount for towns like Cheshire, where Michelangelo said the Public Works Department spent more than $200,000 responding to the October storm alone and about $350,000 on weather response this year.

In Torrington, Jerry Rollett, the city's public works director, said he anticipates his department's total costs will top $400,000.

Like other communities, it's the first time Torrington has had to deal with FEMA on so many disasters at once.

"It's a paperwork nightmare," Rollett said. "It's well worth it, though, hopefully to get a couple of hundred thousand dollars back."

When a natural disaster occurs, affected municipalities immediately begin accounting for all of their response costs. That's because it's initially up to the individual towns and cities to decide whether the financial impact is serious enough to warrant FEMA involvement.

"All of it starts at the local level," said Dennis Pinkham, external affairs officer for the Boston-based FEMA Region 1, which covers the six New England states. "Our direct coordination is with the state. The state goes down to the local emergency manager level to ensure before storm season begins that when bad things happen, they keep accountability of what the costs were for their community, damages and everything."

That's just what cities such as Waterbury did after each federally declared weather disaster this year.

"It's a very tedious, exhausting task," said Joseph Geary, Waterbury's director of operations. "It takes a lot of sets of eyes looking at the report to make sure you get the maximum return for the storm."

After a storm, the municipality contacts the state, which does a pre-assessment before deciding to seek FEMA's help.

"When we are granted a presidential declaration for public assistance, we hold what are called `applicant briefings' for state agencies, municipalities and eligible nonprofits ... in all the counties in the state which were granted public assistance," said Scott DeVico, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. "They describe the process, they go over paperwork, they can ask questions. Then there's more paperwork involved."

The paperwork is then analyzed to determine if the costs meet FEMA eligibility requirements.

"There's a misconception that when we get presidential declaration that we're given a certain amount of money. That's not the way it works," DeVico said.

Officials don't know how much money FEMA will make available until the books are closed and eligible expenses are reimbursed, he said.

In the case of a Jan. 11 snowstorm, FEMA granted a total of $13.7 million to the state and its towns and cities, according to FEMA documents. The final expenses for Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm have not been compiled since towns and cities are still responding to those disasters.

However, FEMA documents indicate that for Hurricane Irene the federal agency has thus far devoted $1.4 million in public assistance and more than $8.2 million in assistance to individual homeowners who incurred expenses beyond what their insurance companies would cover.

FEMA did not yet have financial documentation available regarding the October storm.

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