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July 31, 2013

Schoharie, FEMA squabble over flood relief

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Schoharie County is making an aggressive effort to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it made the wrong decision when it opted to only finance repairs to the county’s flood-damaged public safety building, County Treasurer William Cherry said Tuesday.

The county, he said, is convinced that FEMA, under its own rules, should pay for most of the cost of replacing the damaged complex with a new one that would be outside the floodplain.

Standing in Schoharie County’s corner in the debate with FEMA are Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook and Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as well as Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, and state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, Cherry said. The state Emergency Management Office also supports the county’s position, he said.

“Everyone is on the same page with Schoharie County — except for FEMA,” Cherry said in an interview with The Daily Star.

For the rural county of 32,500 people — many of whom suffered significant losses as the result of flood waters unleashed by Hurricane Irene nearly two years ago — the stakes are high.

County officials have decided it would be far more prudent to build a new public safety structure, which would include a county jail, at an estimated cost of $18.7 million.

The cost of repairing the damaged complex has been pegged at $7.1 million. But if the structure is located within a designated floodplain, as this one is, the repairs must include mitigation measures in the form of floodgates, which would tack on an additional $6.1 million to the costs of the project, bringing the total to $13.2 million, according to FEMA.

Under either scenario — repair the existing structure or build a new one — FEMA would be obligated to pay 75 percent of the costs. Cherry said the state has agreed to pick up the tab for the remaining 25 percent.

Cherry said the FEMA reasoning is “flawed” because the federal bureaucrats are basing the decision on the agency’s so-called “50 percent” rule, which requires it to only pay for repairs when the repair estimates are less than half of what it would cost to build a new public facility to replace on heavily damaged in a disaster.

He noted FEMA’s own rules also require the agency to base its calculations on the the actual cost to repair the building, which must include the mitigation costs as well. If the federal agency were using the $13.2 million figure instead of the $7.1 million estimate, it would realize that the project indeed exceeds the 50 percent rule, Cherry said.

A FEMA official contacted in Washington, Mallory Miller, said she had no immediate comment.

The county Board of Supervisors recently agreed, through a unanimous vote, to have Cherry appeal the decision. The treasurer said he has already hand-delivered the appeal to FEMA officials.

Cherry said it would make far more sense to have the complex built outside the floodplain because repairing the old one — even by adding the expensive system of floodgates — could still leave it vulnerable to another cascade of water during a torrential storm.

The floodgates would have to be higher than the flood of record, which, for Schoharie County, is now the one triggered by Hurricane Irene. But that does not preclude the possibility, he noted, that there could be an even higher surge of water during a future storm.

With the county jail closed by Hurricane Irene two years ago, Schoharie County inmates are being housed at the Albany County Jail, at a significant expense to Schoharie County taxpayers.

Cherry said he is hoping to get an answer soon from FEMA on the county’s appeal so that the county can move forward in dealing with the plan to replace the public safety complex.

Meanwhile, he noted, while FEMA has decided that it will not pay to have the historic Blenheim Covered Bridge replaced — it was destroyed in the same flood — the agency has agreed to reimburse the county for the construction of a 6,000-foot community gathering site that would include a gazebo-like structure.

That decision came about as a result of a successful appeal filed by the county in the face of an earlier FEMA decision to deny funding.

One option being considered by the county is to spend up to $1.7 million for the gathering site and gazebo.

Since the flood, Schoharie County has received a total of $15.9 in funding from FEMA and $5 million from the state Emergency Management Office for assistance in repairing or replacing flood-damaged properties, according to Cherry. The county was one of the hardest hit in the region by the back-to-back disasters inflicted by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.