Few Options For Homeowners After Irene Washed Away Land

Jul 15, 2013

Most people who lost their home in Tropical Storm Irene have had access to some kind of government help. But for many of those whose land washed away there are fewer options.

On the day of the flood when Sheila and Russell Bartel tried to evacuate their home in Newfane, the Rock River was gushing halfway up their road. So they went back home.

“Figured O.K., we’ll just hunker down and ride it out,” recalled Sheila Bartel. But Russell looked down from the house and “saw the entire length of our property wash away.”

“There was hundreds of trees here in our backyard,” said Russell Bartel. “And in a matter of ten minutes they were gone. “

With the trees gone, about an acre of a hillside was unleashed, falling into the river. The couple had built their house up high, on nearly four wooded acres that buffered them from the Rock River below. Now their house sits less than 100 feet from an eroding cliff that drops sharply down to the water. 

The Bartels say the erosion is moving closer to their septic system. But the house is fine, making them ineligible for government help. 

Rob Allen is with the U.S.D.A.’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He says the Emergency Watershed Protection Program can pay to stabilize property only if the erosion threatens infrastructure or buildings.

“It’s not a program just to protect land,” explained Allen.  “Land  itself is not eligible for protection in this program. It’s to protect improved property.”

The Emergency Watershed Protection Program spent nearly $4.2 million stabilizing 163 sites in Vermont after Irene.

But the Bartels were among dozens who were not eligible for assistance.

In Newfane, the Bartels and four other property owners who lost land received a small tax abatement.

Without government help, Sheila and Russell Bartel, who are in their 50s, are trying to take care of it, mostly on their own.

“We actually went to the bank and re-mortgaged  our home so we could pay for the work we needed to get done,” said Sheila Bartel.

The Bartel’s spent more than $30,000 to shore up the cliff and build a fence to protect their grandchildren from falling over the edge.

The Southeastern Vermont Irene Long Term Recovery Committee gave the couple $5,000. Most of it went to haul debris out of the river.

The couple said they recognize they’re fortunate because no one got hurt and they still have a place to live.

Still, looking up at what’s left of the land where he built his home and landscaped for decades Russell Bartel wipes tears from his eyes

“It’s just the work you put into it,” said Bartel. “Yeah, it’s just the work. It’s years just gone!”

The couple says the option of selling the land was part of their retirement plan. But now, they say, they aren’t sure anyone would want it.