February 19, 2019
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Brownville’s case for federal disaster relief might be $700,000 short, rep says

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Construction workers repair a secion of railroad track in Brownville on Monday, June 25, 2012, that was washed out by flash flood waters on Sunday.

BROWNVILLE, Maine — It’s early in the process, but state emergency management workers likely will need to find about $700,000 more in damage done by last weekend’s flooding or the state likely won’t qualify for federal disaster relief, their spokesperson says.

Town Manager Matthew Pineo challenged and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud was surprised by the assertion, but Maine Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lynette Miller said that while enough damage occurred in Brownville and Piscataquis County to merit Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, too little occurred beyond those areas to meet federal statutory requirements.

The strangeness of the weather event could work against the case Gov. Paul LePage and other state officials will present to FEMA when damage estimates are made final, Miller said. The state has 30 days from the end date of the disaster or weather event, which has not been made public, to finish the compilations.

The thunderstorm that stalled over Brownville on June 23-24 contributed to the death of a 29-year-old Milo man in Milo June 24 and severely flooded an area only about 3 1/2 miles in diameter with at least 6 inches of rainfall in three or four hours, while doing comparatively little damage elsewhere. Storms so heavy don’t typically hang over an area, especially for that long, said a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“There is a very narrow exception in the regulations that we don’t think there’s a high probability of [winning our case with], but in cases of a very concentrated impact like this, they [federal officials] will consider lowering the threshold, but I don’t want to raise anyone’s expectations about that,” Miller said.

Pineo said it is much too early to draw conclusions.

“They need to wait until the bill comes in for the 650 tons of asphalt,” Pineo said Saturday, listing several damage costs yet untallied as he awaited the start of a veterans monument dedication service in Milo.

The several roads in Milo closed since Sunday were reopened Friday as part of a state and local government emergency response that was praised for its speed and thoroughness, but road repaving with the estimated amount of asphalt won’t be finished until Aug. 1 or so, Pineo said.

According to damage estimates from late last week, the Maine Department of Transportation has spent $250,000 to $300,000 on road repairs. About $259,000 in damage occurred in Brownville, Pineo has said. Sebec took $10,000 to $15,000 in damage; Piscataquis County, $11,000; and Milo, $113,800, officials said.

The flooding has cost Montreal, Maine & Atlantic customers about $500,000 a day since Sunday, plus another $500,000 in total from the railroad for the repair of the tracks, according to CEO Robert Grindrod.

Michaud expressed surprise at news of Miller’s prediction when informed of it during a ceremony in Milo, but said he would tour damaged areas that day and look into the matter. In a statement, Michaud asked town residents and businesses with storm damage to alert Pineo at 965-2561.

“During the last week, my staff and I have connected with the towns affected by the floods to offer our support and services,” Michaud said. “In addition to the towns, we have reached out to [several businesses], MEMA and the Maine Department of Transportation. I have also spoken to FEMA Region 1 Administrator Don Boyce to pass along information about the floods from the communities and to alert him to a possible request for disaster relief from the state.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is due to visit Brownville on Monday afternoon. Representatives from U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office visited the area last week.

Sunday, Michaud’s chief of staff, Peter Chandler, said Miller’s predicted $700,000 shortfall is probably on the money, at least according to Friday’s figures, the most recent available.

The problem, Miller said, is that while FEMA’s $1.8 million minimum damage threshold might seem to be met by the damage done, FEMA regulations carry within them minimum standards for municipal, county and statewide damage required that would likely cut into that overall figure considerably.

Enough damage has been reported in Brownville, other Piscataquis County towns and on county property to meet the qualifications, but the $417,000 amount of damage reported in Patten and Penobscot County falls short of the $521,798 threshold required there, and the statewide estimate, Miller said.

Also, other damage estimates that might be assumed to be within the threshold, such as the $500,000 in total damage repairs estimated for the railroad line reopened Friday and due to be reopened by early Monday, are exempt from FEMA aid because those tracks are private property and, Miller said.

As an example: FEMA aid is available not for regular repair workers’ pay, only overtime costs, Miller said.

Robert Grindrod, CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways Ltd., which owns the 1,000 feet of track washed out by the storm, understandably disagrees with FEMA over who should pay for the repair of his company’s tracks.

“All I know is that because this is a private company, none of our costs and business losses are covered,” Grindrod said. “Why should it make a difference? If federal assistance is available to the town of Brownville because their road was washed away, why are they more worthy of federal funds than the company who had the same thing happen?”

“I am not saying Brownville isn’t worthy,” he added. “I am saying why isn’t a private company?”

FEMA and MEMA officials will review the numbers together before FEMA starts its final review, Miller said. And all agencies and officials involved have pledged to help secure disaster aid from sources beside FEMA.

For example, the damage to individual private properties will almost certainly not meet its subthreshold, Miller said, but FEMA is working with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development to see if other funds are available.

History could also play a part in the FEMA review. Damage done by previous incidents that didn’t qualify for FEMA aid could become part of the state’s case, and FEMA has the power to make exceptions to its own regulations, Miller said.

That’s why residents and businesses should report all damage to their municipal or county officials, and the state’s federal delegations unanimous support for FEMA relief will play a critical role in the process, Chandler said.

The state’s simple inability to pay for the damage itself could be enough of an argument for FEMA, Miller said.

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