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Sen. Peter Welch calls for new approaches to responding to natural disasters

Jul 10, 2024

Welch is calling for more flexible federal funding for municipalities affected by flooding, aiming for fewer slowdowns from FEMA

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, says his state’s flooding disasters in 2023 demonstrated the need for long-term resiliency that will better protect infrastructure in the face of future storms. He also wants reforms to how the nation responds to natural disasters.

Welch pointed to a recently released report from Democrats on the Senate Joint Economic Committee which says flooding costs the United States between $179.8-496 billion every year. That report blames climate change for the rising costs.

“We’ve got to have resilience and not pretend that the weather patterns haven’t changed,” Welch said in an interview with NBC5 News reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the 2023 floods.

Welch went on to praise the immediate response by FEMA to the flooding in Vermont. However, the senator raised concerns about the agency’s long-term effectiveness for the state. He called for policies that allow for more flexibility to get funds to communities where local leaders have power to make decisions and act.

“Part of what happens is that FEMA has somebody assigned in the aftermath — that person is there for two or three months and goes,” Welch lamented in the one-on-one interview with NBC5 News. “And then somebody else comes in and the way that new person interprets the rules is different than the way the old person interprets the rules.”

Welch described such changes as being frustrating to town managers or select board members, who need straight and consistent answers from FEMA on regulations and processes.

“So it’s really, really essential that we let local people take responsibility,” Welch said. “And I frankly think they could do it cheaper than if it’s Washington-run.”

Welch said he is working closely with a colleague, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, to address the issue of making more flexible funds available more quickly to local communities. Welch acknowledged lawmakers would have to craft clear controls to make sure there are accountability measures in place to ensure taxpayer money is used appropriately and efficiently.

NBC5 News reached out to FEMA for a response to Welch’s calls for changes to the way the nation responds to natural disasters to smooth the process for individual municipalities affected by emergencies.

“FEMA is committed to Vermont’s recovery from last year’s historic flooding and will continue working with our partners on the ground to make sure efforts are moving forward effectively,” an agency spokesperson said in response to the inquiry. “We have an open line of communication with federal, state and local leaders to discuss recovery priorities, best practices and our shared vision for Vermont’s recovery. We will continue to work directly with them for as long as it takes.”

For more from the conversation with Sen. Welch, watch the video embedded in this article.

Story Written by Jack Thurston, NBC5

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