FEMA rejects, at least for now, Vermont arguments about rebuilding bridges

IndustriesAssociated Press

Ever since Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011, Vermont has been pushing to make sure bridges and culverts are rebuilt to more flood-resistant standards. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency is rejecting — at least for now — the state's argument that the federal agency should pay all costs.

A June 4 letter from FEMA to the state, obtained by The Associated Press, says Vermont doesn't enforce the higher standards in a uniform enough fashion to warrant FEMA funding beyond the replacement cost of previously existing structures.

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As a result, many municipalities face the possibility covering the costs of meeting state requirements for better bridges and culverts, without full FEMA funding to get the work done.

State officials maintain that standards for getting a state stream alteration permit must vary somewhat for local conditions.

Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation chief with the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said that if one bridge in Northfield were built to statewide standards, "one of the abutments would have to be out in the middle of Route 12A." He added, "It's not one size fits all."

FEMA, though, looks for consistent state standards so it can insure a project it is funding is not superior to others merely because it's getting federal funding, Rose said.

In his letter to Vermont Emergency Management Director Joe Flynn, Paul Ford, FEMA's acting regional director in Boston, wrote that the state's general permit for stream alterations "does not set forth engineering design standards or measurable performance criteria of sufficient specificity for replacement bridges and culverts necessary to demonstrate uniform application across the entire state."

FEMA has come through with additional funding for many of its projects under its "hazard mitigation" program, but state officials say that's discretionary and doesn't do enough to encourage stronger, more flood-resilient construction when structures need to be rebuilt.

It's been a long-running battle, said Sue Minter, Vermont's transportation secretary and former Irene recovery chief.

Minter said the state's determination to build bigger and better grew after some culverts in central Vermont were washed out in heavy rains in May 2011, replaced and then washed away again when Irene hit three months later.

From then on, "We were building back to a stronger standard — stronger than Irene found us," Minter said. The Federal Highway Administration was fully on board, but FEMA balked, she said. "So one arm of the federal government was supporting our initiative to be more resilient and another was not," she said.

A spokesman in FEMA's Boston regional office, Bruce Brodoff, had no immediate comment.