February 24, 2019
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State presses FEMA to begin assessing Brownville, Patten flood damage

The state is pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin assessing heavy flood damage in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties caused by stalled thunderstorms last month despite the damage failing to meet federal assistance standards.

In a letter to FEMA’s regional office in Boston, the state’s acting commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, Robert McAleer, conceded that early assessments show that not enough damage occurred statewide to qualify for FEMA assistance.

“We are taking the step of requesting a [Preliminary Damage Assessment] of these counties because of the extraordinary impact of the damages on the affected towns,” McAleer wrote in the letter dated Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, also wrote to Don Boyce, FEMA’s regional administrator for New England, urging him to begin the assessment process. The severe damage suffered by the area warrants the assessment, Snowe said in her letter.

In what a National Weather Service meteorologist called one of the strangest storms he had seen, more than $1.2 million of damage occurred within a 3½-mile radius of Brownville when a line of thunderstorms dumped more than 6 inches of rain on the center of that Piscataquis County town within three or four hours on June 23-24, McAleer said.

The torrent of water overwhelmed the town’s flood defenses, wiping out roads and railroad tracks in Brownville crucial to industry and contributing to the death of a Milo man on June 24. The Penobscot County town of Patten also was severely hit by the storm. Some total damage estimates have run as high as $4 million.

An official from the Maine Emergency Management Agency said on July 1 that while more than enough damage had occurred in Brownville and elsewhere in Piscataquis County to qualify for FEMA aid, storm damage estimates statewide would probably fall about $700,000 short of qualifying for FEMA relief, though several other kinds of federal or state aid remain available.

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 wiped out by the storm, are exempt from FEMA aid because those tracks are private property, the MEMA spokeswoman said. As an example: FEMA aid is not available for regular repair workers’ pay, only overtime costs.

McAleer said the state’s preassessment shows there was more than $200 per capita in damage in Brownville and more than $410 per capita in damage to Patten, due to the severity of the storm and the towns’ sparse populations.

Robert Grindrod, CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., the freight hauler that owns the damaged tracks, welcomed the state’s efforts but said he doubted they would do much good for his business.

FEMA “came in to Maine with the Fort Kent flood a few years ago and they went and said, ‘We are not doing anything for you, you’re a private company. Too bad. See you.’ I expect the same response this time,” Grindrod said Friday.

“We will have to pay it off [the $500,000 damage estimate] as best we can over the next six months or so. There is no alternative,” Grindrod said. “There is no sort of small-business exemption for this kind of thing that I am aware of.”

The railroad employs about 175 people as part of its rail operations, which include 250 miles of track between Maine and Montreal and another 240 miles from the Canadian border to Brownville Junction as well as to Bangor, Searsport, East Millinocket and Millinocket, Grindrod said.

Efforts to compile damage estimates continue. Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s congressional delegation have promised to seek all available aid for storm recovery efforts. LePage already has sought federal aid for road flooding damage statewide that occurred for all of last month.

Snowe is among several state and federal officials who had visited the areas after the flooding or pledged to support LePage in his efforts to secure federal relief funding to fix the damage.

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