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Sitting in Limbo

As Moretown's Irene victims rebuild, many fear the devil is in FEMA's details


Published September 28, 2011 at 10:42 a.m.

During the Great Flood of 1927, the Mad River turned furious and jumped its banks in Moretown, trapping scores of townspeople in low-lying houses. According to local lore, elderly residents too sick or frail to cross the swiftly moving current needed help with evacuation. However, most of the village’s horses were too spooked by the swirling eddies and floating debris to wade into the floodwaters. So a blind horse was led from house to house to ferry people to safety.

“Something about that story just gets me,” says Moretown resident John Schultz, 62, as he surveys the remains of his family home on Main Street. He and his wife, Annette, bought the place where they live with their daughter, Megan, in 1972. Since then, the property has served as a bed and breakfast and a ski school; the adjacent garage housed Schultz’s machine shop.

On August 28, the house underwent what Megan calls a “forced remodel” at the hands of Tropical Storm Irene. Within hours, floodwaters rose precipitously. Schultz says he knew they were in deep trouble when neighboring Doctor’s Brook, normally a docile rivulet that feeds the Mad River, began flowing backward and advancing up the lawn.

Weeks later, piles of waterlogged furniture languish behind the house in the afternoon sun. Some can be saved, but most are destined for the landfill. The rest of the family’s salvaged belongings are stacked on shelves in the stand-alone garage. Others were accidentally discarded by well-intentioned volunteers, who threw away intact possessions along with ruined ones.

“It hurt at the time, but a day or so later, you say, ‘Screw it,’” says Schultz. “You hate to lose even more to the chaos, but that’s life.”

In the 1970s, Schultz launched his business Super Thin Saws in this garage. He later moved it to its current Waterbury location, which also flooded last month. Most recently, the garage housed Megan’s wedding- and event-planning business. That, too, was obliterated by water, mud and silt that reached the ceiling fixtures.

Amid all the family’s anguish and tears, Schultz recalls a few surreal, even comical, moments. Days after the storm, and long after the road into Moretown was passable, a military helicopter landed, unannounced, behind the house. Its crew dropped off several cases of bottled water and some bandages, then flew off.

Moretown wasn’t the most devastated place in Vermont, but it got its share of Irene’s wrath. In all, 65 homes were damaged or destroyed in this central Vermont town of just 1600 people. The historic town hall flooded, as did the firehouse, which was under eight feet of water.

Now, Moretown is a microcosm of what’s happening all across Vermont, where state officials estimate that between 700 and 800 homes were destroyed or suffered major damage. Most of the rescuers and volunteers who descended on Moretown immediately after the storm are gone, leaving behind residents and town officials to pick up the pieces.

Few here are openly critical of the initial disaster response from the state or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But some residents embarking on the reconstruction process seem to feel like that blind horse in the ’27 flood, forging through the wreckage but not knowing where their next step will land. They know enough to be anxious about the unknown, such as the conditions FEMA may impose on individuals, businesses and towns. They’re discovering that those conditions can vary from block to block, even house to house. And that unpredictability has left many on Moretown’s 100-year floodplain — those with or without flood insurance — wringing their hands as they await official word from FEMA.

To make matters worse, FEMA assistance has for the past week hung in the balance as legislators bickered over the funding of federal agencies, threatening yet again to bring the government to a halt. But on Monday, FEMA indicated that it could get through the rest of the budget year with the $114 million remaining in its coffers. The Senate was then able to agree to a deal that will provide a seven-week extension of financing for other government agencies.

On the recent September day when I visit, reliable information is in short supply. Earlier this morning, Schultz heard from neighbors that if FEMA declares his house more than 50 percent damaged, he may be forced to fill in his basement with sand or concrete, perhaps even elevate the house and garage by several feet. Schultz estimates that would cost at least $200,000, more than he owes on the mortgage.

An engineer friend who toured the house assured Schultz that FEMA would be hard-pressed to declare it even 15 percent damaged; aside from personal belongings, most of what got ruined was Sheetrock, flooring, wiring, insulation and a few kitchen appliances, including the oven and refrigerator. But even as he waits to receive word from FEMA, Schultz is already strategizing his next move.

“If they say we have to lift the building and fill in the foundation, I’m going to fight it,” he says. “If you pay off the mortgage, that becomes equity. If you raise the building, you just pissed it down a rat hole.”

FEMA’s damage-assessment team, due this morning, hasn’t arrived yet, so Schultz still has many unanswered questions. For example, he wonders whether the 50 percent damage estimate will be based on the house’s market value or its assessed value for tax purposes. (FEMA’s answer, I learn later: assessed value.)

Schultz is also thinking of paying off his entire mortgage and not accepting any FEMA assistance. He reasons that, if the bank has no financial stake in the house, he can do with it as he pleases. But he wonders if FEMA, the state or the town can still require him to rebuild according to federal flood-hazard mitigation standards. (FEMA’s answer: yes.)

Then there’s the issue of historic structures. Schultz, whose house was built in 1820, suspects that Moretown is a historic village, but it’s listed on neither the national nor the Vermont register of historic places. (That week, town officials offered conflicting answers about the designation.) Will FEMA still require Schultz to elevate a historic house, fill in the cellar or both? (FEMA’s answer: It depends.)

“Some people in town are saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens,’” Schultz says. “I’m like, ‘No, let’s be proactive.’ We don’t really know what’s going to happen yet.”

Across Main Street from the Schultzes’ home is a recently repainted house that, at first glance, seems largely unscathed. However, closer inspection reveals that the attached garage/mud room has separated from the main house and slid off its foundation. The steps to the covered front porch are gone, replaced by a rickety wooden stepladder. On the door, a sign-up sheet for disaster volunteers reads “Open House.”

Only upon entering the house does one grasp the sign’s double meaning. The owner, John DiCarlo, 63, stands on a staircase leading to the second floor wearing a dust mask, scrubs and an exhausted expression. At the bottom of the steps, nearly the whole floor is gone; only exposed crossbeams indicate where the living room, dining room and kitchen once were. Otherwise, it’s a sheer drop to the cellar below.

DiCarlo, who has owned this house for 36 years, sweeps dust off the stairs in a tidying effort that, to an observer, seems akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. He and his wife, Pam Becker, spent much of the summer fixing up this 1870-vintage house: It had a high-tank toilet, claw-foot tub, refurbished doors, two-level deck. “It was beautiful,” DiCarlo laments. Now he’s surrounded by an empty shell that, like a movie set, is all façade and no interior. The couple was lucky enough to have flood insurance coverage, but there’s little they can do yet.

“Basically, we’re on hold until FEMA makes its determination,” DiCarlo says. A data-gathering team from FEMA stopped by earlier in the day, he explains, but a separate damage-assessment team is due back later to walk through the house, or what’s left of it. DiCarlo was told his home might be deemed more than 50 percent damaged, which could mean he must fill in the basement. However, one FEMA worker who came with the first group told him he won’t need to jack up the house, a spot of good news.

Despite his flood insurance coverage, DiCarlo has been told he cannot begin construction yet, inside or out, without a building permit. Town officials won’t issue them until FEMA completes its damage assessments. “I hope it’s a fairly rapid decision,” DiCarlo sighs.

Delays aside, DiCarlo expresses no bitterness toward the federal disaster agency. “I’ve actually been pretty impressed with how FEMA is responding,” he says. “We filled out their forms, and within a couple days they had an inspector here ... When you’re a homeowner, you’d love quick answers. But they’ve got a monumental job to do.”

Such bonhomie isn’t shared by DiCarlo’s neighbor on the opposite side of Doctor’s Brook. There, a small house sits with one wall of its foundation fully exposed by the flood.

It’s the home of Meriden Nelson, a 72-year-old native Vermonter who’s lived in the house for 37 years, much of it with his wife, who died six years ago. Nelson answers the door in a black baseball cap and gray T-shirt featuring an image of a deer in the crosshairs of a hunter’s scope.

Built like a fire hydrant, Nelson offers the meaty handshake of someone who’s done physical labor most of his life. Indeed, for years before his retirement, Nelson served as the custodian at Moretown Elementary School; he also plowed streets in the winter. The morning after the flood, as residents and volunteers slogged through mud and muck, Nelson fired up the town’s front-end loader and cleared the streets and sidewalks before attending to his own needs.

Nelson sits down on an overturned bucket and offers me the only other seat in the house: a milk crate. The first floor is gutted and stripped to the subflooring. With all the insulation gone, a light breeze blows through what was once Nelson’s main living quarters.

The house, built in 1841, has survived two earlier floods, Nelson reports. In ’27, the owners chained it to trees across the road to keep it from washing off its foundation. Afterward, it was raised three feet. This time, floodwaters rose nearly four feet up the first-floor wall, Nelson says, pointing to the high-water mark on a window screen.

Hours earlier, a FEMA representative told Nelson he’ll probably need to fill in most of the basement, leaving just a four-foot crawl space. Nelson shakes his head and smiles. He had homeowner’s insurance but no flood insurance, despite living in the 100-year floodplain. “Can’t afford it,” he says matter-of-factly.

As a result, Nelson’s insurance won’t cover any of his losses. With only $30,000 in the bank, he expects he’ll exhaust it all rebuilding. Still, the retiree insists he won’t take a dime of FEMA’s money because he doesn’t want to play by its rules.

“I only got four weeks to get in here before winter. I’m not gonna live with my son all winter long. That’s a burden on him,” Nelson says, arms crossed defiantly. “I’m just gonna keep going, whether I’m right or wrong ... I’ll rebuild and fight the consequences later.”

Flooding is the most common form of natural disaster in the United States, and the one that claims the most lives each year. In 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a division of FEMA that provides federally backed flood insurance to qualifying businesses and individuals. NFIP encourages smart development in flood-prone areas and provides affordable insurance to homeowners there. Areas that have at least a 1 percent chance of flooding each year are considered “special flood hazard areas,” more commonly referred to as the “100-year floodplain.”

Jim Bruni handles floodplain management and insurance for NFIP. According to him, about 80 percent of Vermont’s housing stock was built before federal floodplain maps were even made.

Bruni can’t comment on particular cases, such as Nelson’s, but he can talk about the consequences of one homeowner ignoring FEMA rules, which can ripple through an entire community.

Bruni, who’s from Portland, Maine, is based in FEMA’s Joint Field Office in Burlington but spends much of his time in the field assessing damaged properties, including those in Moretown. He’s eager to answer questions, dispel rumors and convey accurate information to those affected by the storm. Those are some of FEMA’s biggest challenges right now, he says, along with getting people to register with FEMA at all. In many cases, Bruni says, town officials are as much in the dark as their constituents.

“Most of the flood administrators and zoning administrators are part-timers who’ve never experienced anything like this,” Bruni explains. “So, they’re totally out of their element, swamped and stressed out.”

For the purposes of Irene rebuilding, Bruni isn’t dealing with anyone whose home lies outside the 100-year floodplain. As he explains, neither FEMA nor NFIP can impose conditions on rebuilding those houses when they were damaged by the storm, whether homeowners accept federal assistance or not.

When one owner of a structure inside the 100-year floodplain decides to buck the system, however, and local officials look the other way, consequences can be grave.

“[That owner] can jeopardize the whole town’s ability to be a member in good standing with NFIP,” Bruni explains. “If they’re sanctioned because they’re not enforcing the NFIP [rules], no one in town can get flood insurance. And that’s a biggie.”

Bruni emphasizes that homeowners should not assume FEMA is condemning houses or telling people which ones cannot be rebuilt. As he puts it, “We don’t make that decision. We just run the numbers for the town.” But, for some homeowners, the conditions the agency can impose would make rebuilding cost prohibitive.

Currently, FEMA’s “substantial damage assessors” are out surveying structures across the state. They’re like real estate appraisers, Bruni explains, evaluating the condition of each house based on 12 different criteria, including its foundation, utilities, plumbing, floors, roofing, kitchen cabinets, doors, windows and so forth. For each category, the assessors — like nuns, they always travels in twos — assign a value to the damage incurred, ranging from zero to 100 percent.

“So we punch all this data into the software, press a button and boom! It spits out a number,” Bruni says.

The magic number, Bruni elaborates, is 50 percent. If a home is in the 100-year floodplain, and if it’s more than 50 percent damaged and if it’s not a historic structure, FEMA may require a homeowner to rebuild according to federal flood-hazard mitigation standards — or not at all. In some cases, homeowners may be asked to relocate out of future harm’s way to continue to qualify for federal flood insurance. Should that be necessary, Bruni says, the state will set up a buyout program.

Scary as that sounds, Bruni stresses that such worst-case scenarios are surprisingly rare. Although he has no definitive numbers yet, he predicts that fewer than 5 percent of all homes damaged by Irene in Vermont will even reach the 50 percent threshold.

Moreover, Bruni points out that FEMA’s damage assessments are by no means the last word. Homeowners are allowed to hire their own contractors to perform those assessments, provided that they’re deemed “reputable.” In this and virtually all other cases, homeowners have the right to appeal FEMA determinations.

How is Moretown faring? Thus far, Bruni says, the preliminary numbers look promising. Though he’s not at liberty to disclose house-by-house data, he says FEMA assessment teams haven’t identified one house in Moretown that’s reached the 50 percent mark.

Bruni qualifies his comments by noting that he’s referring strictly to stick-built houses. Mobile homes, he says, are an entirely different story.

In Moretown, residents of the town’s small mobile-home park were spared major flood damage. The same cannot be said for those of Weston’s Mobile Home Park in nearby Berlin, most of whom experienced severe flooding.

They include 64-year-old Sandra Gaffney, who says she just bought her trailer, the first home she’s ever owned, one year ago. Gaffney left her trailer on the day of the storm because she feared for her own safety and that of the developmentally disabled client with whom she lives. Only hours after evacuation, she saw photos of her trailer on Facebook, under eight feet of water.

Like many mobile-home residents across Vermont, Gaffney feels as though she is being “left out of the loop” in the rebuilding process.

A major concern, Gaffney says, is the expense mobile-home owners will face in disposing of wrecked trailers, which can run upward of $4000 per unit. Last week, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott announced plans for the rapid and affordable disposal of demolished trailers, capping the cost at $1500. Gaffney says even that figure may be too high for some residents.

“If we had the money, we’d buy a stick house, but we don’t,” she says, choking back tears. “We bought a trailer, and we’re vulnerable. They’re not as well made, but they’re our homes.”

Gaffney fears that FEMA will compel her to repair her trailer rather than scrap it, she says. She’s concerned that, once it’s been submerged in eight feet of water, she’ll never get rid of the mold problem.

“I’ve heard rumors that if you don’t spend [FEMA] money on what they say, you’re going to have to return it,” she adds.

Though Bruni again can’t comment on a specific case, he says that, in his experience, flooded mobile homes rarely get rebuilt. As he puts it, “If it’s got six inches of water in it, it’s toast.”

Where FEMA money will go is a legitimate concern, not just for homeowners but also for businesses and municipalities. Steven Jeffrey is executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which self-insures multiple small- and medium-sized municipalities, including such properties as sewage treatment plants, pump houses, dams, firehouses, city halls and the coverings on covered bridges. Already, VLCT has processed $14 million in Irene-related claims on 125 buildings in 45 municipalities, including Moretown.

In the days immediately after Irene, Jeffrey was contacted by his counterparts in Florida. They informed him that the federal government is still disputing $140 million in awards FEMA made to cities and towns in that state after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. As Jeffrey put it, when you accept FEMA funds, “It ain’t over until after the fat lady sings.

“You can’t blame the FEMA guys, because they’ve got their fingers on a rather substantial purse string, which is all taxpayer dollars, and it shouldn’t be spent willy-nilly,” Jeffrey adds. “On the other hand, it’d be nice to be know what you can do and can’t do and who should pay for it.”

Jeffrey advises local officials, businesses and homeowners to heed the advice he got from his southern counterparts: First, document everything. Second, try to use FEMA’s preferred terminology. For example, if you’re doing debris removal, he says, it’s best to specify it’s for “the health and safety of the residents” rather than simply calling it “garbage pickup.”

Two weeks later, Bruni, at FEMA headquarters, has good news to report. Because of the historic nature of Moretown’s village center, he says, its homeowners won’t be compelled to elevate their homes, a concern that caused “much gnashing of teeth.” Additionally, no homes hit the 50 percent damage threshold, so owners won’t need to fill in their basements.

John Hoogenboom, who chairs the Moretown Selectboard, breathes a sigh of relief that his town “dodged that bullet” and can start the next phase of rebuilding.

“People have already started to rebuild,” Hoogenboom says. “Hopefully, FEMA will accept the fact that they were permitted after the fact.”

Over on Main Street, John Schultz, who has yet to receive any official notification from FEMA, says he’ll believe it when he sees it in print. In the meantime, he’s nursing a strained back, the result of weeks of nearly around-the-clock lifting. Still, he’s taking the long view on his family’s predicament.

“It’s the world’s biggest pain in the butt, but nobody’s dead,” he says. “You rebuild and you go on ... We’ll be OK, so long as the government doesn’t decide to kill us.”

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