February 19, 2019
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FEMA should rain down help for Piscataquis County

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Joseph Arsenault, a worker at Joe's Repair Shop in Brownville, uses a jackhammer on Monday, June 25, 2012, to remove a section of concrete floor that was undermined by flood waters on Sunday.

The Brownville area is in a tragic situation: A thunderstorm June 23 and 24 caused local devastation, but because the area is rural and sparsely populated the damage might not be enough to trigger federal disaster relief funding.

So even though the damage estimates in Brownville constitute about 40 percent of the town’s annual municipal budget, and the damage estimates in Patten make up nearly 50 percent of that town’s budget, the total cost of repairing infrastructure likely will not meet the required Federal Emergency Management Agency threshold of $1.8 million — which is based on per capita data.

But there is a small reason for the affected communities — also including Milo, Sebec and some unorganized territories in Piscataquis County — to hope. Within the federal regulations outlining the factors FEMA has to consider when evaluating a request for a major disaster declaration is a rarely applied exemption.

The exemption allows the federal government to use a lower threshold in situations when a disaster’s effect is localized because, as the code states, “at times there are extraordinary concentrations of damages that might warrant federal assistance even if the statewide per capita is not met.”

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the Maine Emergency Management Agency are working to determine under what circumstances FEMA will consider lowering the damage estimate threshold. FEMA has denied Maine before, but it waived the higher threshold in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd.

We would like to see FEMA help Piscataquis County. The exemption is present for a reason, and Maine’s disaster relief fund is not funded. There was nothing Brownville could have done to prevent the damage caused by the thunderstorm, which contributed to the death of a Milo man and flooded an area about three-and-a-half miles in diameter, with at least six inches of rainfall in three or four hours.

Brownville, Sebec, Milo, Patten and the unorganized territories are also just shy of the $1.8 million damage estimate threshold, and it seems unfair to penalize them for not having more buildings and roads to destroy. So far the communities have identified $1.26 million in first responder work, debris removal and damage to roads, bridges, public buildings, equipment, public utilities and recreational facilities, according to MEMA.

The estimates do not consider the damage to the railroad or other businesses — just public infrastructure. MEMA is currently working with the Department of Economic and Community Development to identify businesses that could qualify for disaster loans with the Small Business Administration. And Maine Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster is available to help local homeowners clean out their basements and prevent mold.

Still, there is little assistance to help towns replace their infrastructure. Their current option is to drain their reserves, which will have to be replenished by future tax dollars. Patten residents are meeting Thursday for a special town meeting to vote whether to authorize spending to fix the hardest-hit roads and get them open to traffic once again.

Brownville Town Manager Matthew Pineo said he was amazed to walk into the office Monday and find a check waiting for him for $10,000 from Joseph Cyr of Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town. Municipalities have helped as well. After the storm, relief volunteers and equipment came from Bangor, Hampden, Ellsworth, Old Town, Milo, Millinocket, Orono, Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford and the Maine State Police.

The federal government should lend a hand as well.

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