Bennington Pushes FEMA On Post-Irene River Work

Aug 28, 2014

Three years after Tropical Storm Irene, much of Vermont’s damaged infrastructure has been repaired. The federal government has dispensed more than $600 million to help make that happen. But some towns are still struggling. One of them is Bennington. 

The town is about to enter the final round of a battle with FEMA over funding for emergency work on the Roaring Branch of the Walloomsac River.

The Roaring Branch lived up to its name during Irene. The river roared down Woodford Mountain, carrying rocks, trees, land and structures into Bennington, where the land levels out and the river typically deposits its sediment and debris.

Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd watched as a car tumbled downstream, barely clearing one of two bridges near the town center.

"So there was a real concern, if any more material got caught on those bridges it was going to top those bridges or go around," Hurd says. "And if it went around them, it would be in the village. That was the risk."

"It seems to be very challenging to communicate with FEMA about the true nature of the risks and what we have to do to alleviate those risks in the state." - Roy Schiff, aquatic engineer

Bennington Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks says Irene added as much as 12 feet of sediment and debris in some spots. The next storm could have forced the river to detour around that material in catastrophic new directions. The town worked closely with river experts to minimize the danger without causing unwanted consequences downstream. Monks says the work protected badly eroded banks. And it left the Roaring Branch and its flood plain wider, so it has room to meander and dissipate its energy.

"We only removed about half of the sediment," Monks says. "We believe we did the minimum necessary to protect life and property."

The project cost about $4 million. But when the town applied to FEMA, the agency responded that it didn’t qualify for reimbursement.

Onlookers saw a car tumble head-over-end under the Park Street Bridge. It had been in a garage that was swept away in the storm.
Credit Susan Keese / VPR

Roy Schiff is an aquatic engineer hired by the town. He says FEMA rules are geared towards inundation floods, where water rises and then recedes. He says FEMA is less familiar with the fast-moving, powerful erosion floods typical of Vermont’s mountain waterways.

"It seems to be very challenging to communicate with FEMA about the true nature of the risks and what we have to do to alleviate those risks in the state," Schiff says. A spokesman for FEMA says the agency does understand erosion flooding. But FEMA funding hinges on a project’s cost-effectiveness. And cost-benefit analyses are difficult with erosion floods, because they’re less predictable.

"Bennington is one of the last remaining major pain points." - Ben Rose, Vermont Department of Safety and Homeland Security

Ben Rose leads Vermont’s Irene-related recovery and mitigation efforts. He’s worked with Vermont communities on some 3,400 FEMA applications. Most of the projects are complete or underway, except for a few dozen of the toughest problems.

"Bennington is one of the last remaining major pain points," says Rose. "[It’s] one of the places where to date we have not gotten all the federal support we believe should be coming within the federal eligibility guidelines."  

After years of discussion and appeals, Rose says, FEMA has now agreed to pay $2 million toward the work on the Roaring Branch.

"But there’s still about $1.1 million in funding essentially in dispute," he adds. "And that may very likely be headed to a second appeal in Washington, D.C."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd says $1 million is a lot of money for a town Bennington’s size. And with so many experts on its side, he says the town will file a final appeal.