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Sanders, Welch, Balint say FEMA must do better responding to future disasters

May 11, 2024

Vermont’s Congressional delegation is not happy with the job the Federal Emergency Management Response Agency did in the wake of the historic flooding in Vermont in July 2023.

The Great Vermont Flood of 2023, as the National Weather Service dubbed it, took two lives. More than 350 family farms were affected by the storms, suffering an estimated $45 million in total losses. The flood caused millions of dollars of destruction in urban areas as well, with 125 businesses damaged by flooding in Montpelier alone. Dozens of roads were damaged and two bridges were destroyed.

Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, was flooded after torrential rains caused the Winooski River to overflow its banks on July 11, 2023. COURTESY of University of Vermont

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch and Rep. Becca Balint begin a two-page letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell by acknowledging support from the agency, including IA, or individual assistance, has been “crucial to the state’s recovery efforts.” Altogether, FEMA provided more than $25 million in individual and household assistance to more than 3,600 households in Vermont.

Vermont’s experience recovering from the July 2023 floods also, however, “highlighted areas of improvement for FEMA’s (Individual Assistance) process,” the delegation writes, including the following:

  • Inadequate Direct Housing Assistance. Only 11 households in the state ultimately received Direct Housing Assistance, and many Vermonters struggled to access the assistance they needed, according to the delegation.
  • Unclear application process. Despite a revamp in 2022 following a 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found FEMA’s determination letters were a barrier to disaster survivors accessing assistance, the delegation says reports they received from constituents showed the process is still confusing, and still a barrier.
  • Insufficient technical assistance. It took more than three months after the flooding to receive federal funding to set up a Disaster Case Management program. As a result Vermonters relied on volunteer organizations across the state for help, according to the delegation.
A “Montpelier Strong” photo exhibit shown Dec. 15, 2023, decorates the window of an empty storefront five months after flooding devastated the city’s downtown. BRENT HALLENBECK

Questions about FEMA’s response to Vermont flooding disaster that congressional delegation wants answered

The delegation also posed a series of 14 questions to Criswell, asking her to provide answers by no later than May 29, 2024. The questions include:

  • What steps, if any, should Congress consider to better streamline the provision of case management funding?
  • What challenges, if any, does FEMA face in housing disaster victims under the Direct Housing Assistance program in a timely manner?
  • What metrics does FEMA use to determine whether Direct Housing Assistance is needed following a disaster, and in what timeframe is that determination made?
  • In the second quarter of 2023, immediately prior to the flooding, the rental vacancy rate in Vermont, as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was just 1.8 percent. What steps, if any, could FEMA take to expedite providing housing for those with housing damage to ensure that victims are not living in damaged homes?
  • Please provide examples of determination letters sent to Vermonters in 2023, including determination letters that include final details of (Individual Assistance) assistance and determination letters that inform individuals they can appeal their determination.
  • What improvements could FEMA make to ensure survivors are receiving consistent and accurate information, provided across disparate outlets, such as the national call center, local recovery centers, and field representatives?

Welch tells fellow senators their communities could be next to get hit with disaster

On Wednesday, Welch delivered remarks on the Senate floor, calling for Congress to pass long-term disaster relief funding for Vermont, following the July 2023 flooding.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch during a March 18, 2024 press conference about federal funding. Megan Stewart/Burlington Free Press

“What is more important, more essential for the Senate than to acknowledge that all of us as Americans, there but for the grace of God goes our communities when a natural disaster occurs,” Welch said.

Story Link: Dan D’Ambrosio, Burlington Free Press

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