In The News

Sen. Welch and Rep. Balint share insights on federal flood relief

Jul 20, 2023

Mike Dougherty / Vermont Public
Rep. Becca Balint discusses the state’s flood response at a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, July 12.

From farmers to restaurant owners, many Vermonters are counting on federal disaster assistance to help them recover from last week’s catastrophic flooding.

Vermont’s congressional delegation has spent the past week lobbying for additional relief funds for the state and touring hard-hit areas.

“This is quite a catastrophe,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Vermont Public last week as he detailed what he’d seen in Barre.

Speaking with host Mikaela Lefrak on Wednesday’s Vermont Edition, Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) discussed their top local priorities and answered questions about the federal government’s role in flood recovery.

Highlights of their conversation are below and have been edited for length and clarity.

Balint, Welch acknowledge frustration about undeclared counties

Mikaela Lefrak: We’ve received a number of questions about the federal disaster declaration and the fact that right now only six counties are included in it. Jackie in Randolph writes, “There are lots of needs and damages in Orleans, Caledonia and Orange Counties. Why are they not included?” And then Sylvia in Lyndon writes, “Disaster aid by county is patently unfair. What will be done to help those in need – everybody everywhere in Vermont?” Sen. Welch?

Welch: The county declaration is based on the information available about the extent of damage. And when we were with the governor and the secretary — [U.S. Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg — he indicated that this will be an ongoing adjustment as information comes in. So anyone in a county that has not yet been declared as part of that disaster should call 211 to register your damage as soon as possible. That’ll be helpful in getting the accumulation of evidence that’s required to go from being outside of the disaster declaration to being in it.

Courtesy /Vermont Agency Of Transportation
Road damage on Route 15 in Hardwick, photographed July 14.

So the second thing I want to say is that it’s very, very important for people who have any damage to register your property with FEMA. It’s got to be in the system, so to speak. So it’s essential to make sure you do that. And you only have 60 days, that’s a business or a home if you have that damage. So those are the two things that I think are really, really essential for Vermonters and doing that, if it’s from a county just not yet included, that county can become included.

Rep. Balint, what do you think of our listener Sylvia in Lyndon’s statement that disaster aid by county is “patently unfair”? Do you agree?

Balint: Yes, as we know, we really don’t have county government in Vermont, and we came up against this with the Coronavirus relief funds as well, when I was in the state Legislature. It’s something that we conveyed to Secretary Vilsack of the Agency of Agriculture when the three of us were on the phone the other day — me and the two senators — explaining that same thing, that that just does not work for Vermont. So it’s going to be something we’ll be navigating.

I also just want to reiterate what Sen. Welch just said, when we were traveling with Secretary Buttigieg earlier in the week, we were in Caledonia County, we know exactly what folks are talking about in these other counties that aren’t part of the declaration. And we have heard that, as they gather more information, other counties will be added. It is in flux. This is not the final list of counties for support.

Standout moments from meeting Vermonters

Would you be able to share maybe one interaction or one thing that you saw on the ground in the state that has really affected you, or that might motivate you moving forward as you lobby for Vermont’s needs on Capitol Hill?

Balint: I think a couple of conversations that are really sticking with me are conversations I had over the weekend when I was traveling in the southern part of the state — Londonderry and Ludlow and Weston — and talking to small business owners who basically have lost everything and may not be eligible for programs because they didn’t have flood insurance. And they are currently dealing with catastrophic loss of all of their inventory, but also their refrigerators, their freezers. They’re not drawing a paycheck now because they are out of business. They, you know, are beside themselves with trying to figure out how they’re going to make ends meet.

… And of course, all the the renters that we talked to in Barre, who are not able to go back into their homes. I’m worried that we’re also in the summer, and it’s moist, and I’m worried about the mold that might come and compromise other people’s housing, there’s just just so many stories of people really, really suffering right now. And of course, something that goes along with that is also across the state in every community, hundreds of volunteers have come out to try to help. And I just hope that we’re going to be able to maintain this support within these smaller communities because they don’t have the resources of of a larger city.

Welch: Two stand out. The Hollyers — Freda and Perry Hollyer own the Inn by the River in Hardwick. And Becca and I were there with the secretary of transportation. They moved up here six years ago, bought an inn, fixed it up, put solar panels on, and had become an extremely important part of the community. And that inn is by the river. But the river was about 200 feet from their inn. But during the course of the storm, the river changed course, and literally ate away those 200 feet and went underneath the foundation of this inn, and it collapsed and is destroyed. And just shortly before this happened, the family moved all of their personal items to the property. They lost the inn that they were so invested in and were part of the community. Mr. Hollyer, he was a contractor before, and he had 40 years of accumulated tools that were near and dear to him. And he was going to bequeath them to his two sons. They’re gone, all their family heirlooms are gone. And their ability to be contributing members of the community, which was so, so important to them, is gone. And boom, it just happened. And they were there it was happening. And they barely got out of there with their vehicles.

Erica Heilman / Vermont Public
Storm-related road damage on Route 14 between East Calais and Woodbury on July 11, 2023.

And then another example, that was so painful was Gov. Scott was with us and we were down along the river in Barre, and a woman in a mobile home park that had been destroyed, really, had walked across a mud field where each step she sunk into the mud at least 8 inches. And she was carrying a little pail with a few possessions, and they were essentially favorite toys of one of her kids. And, you know, while we were there in consoling her and, you know, giving assurances that we’ll do everything we can, right before you was a person whose life is upside down and at the end of the day, really was in a very dependent position.

Mike Dougherty / Vermont Public
Sen. Peter Welch discusses the state’s flood response at a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

… Becca and Bernie and I feel very privileged to have an opportunity to be in a position to try to be helpful. But at the end of the day, that person who lost her home, that’s really tough.

And just one other that was really compelling — when we were in Johnson, this family, the husband and wife were raising the grandchildren, and they lost their home. And what they were saying to us is they had to had to had to get stability ASAP for those kids. And that was foremost on their mind. It was not that they lost their home. It’s, they knew the grandchildren they were raising needed their home. So it’s very moving to see people facing these challenges, but there’s real suffering for folks whose businesses have been hit and whose homes have been hit.

Aid for farmers and businesses: Could there be more than just loans?

Lefrak asked about limitations of federal farm aid programs in the wake of the disaster, following up on the previous day’s conversation with Grace Oedel of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

Welch: The current state of crop insurance generally applies to big commodity crops. In the past, we have been successful in having crop insurance extended to specialty crops — which is a way of saying vegetables — so there are crop insurance programs that do cover vegetables and small producers. But whether the details of the particular program will apply to your farm is a case-by-case review. … We’ll be trying to provide concrete information, whether it’s good news or bad news, to some of our smaller producers. But again, they’ve been devastated. Those crops are completely lost. And in many ways the farms are suffering more from this storm than they did even in Irene.

Janet in Plainfield called in to share a story of frustration with farm relief:

I’m calling just because of frustration. I just left the FSA office in Williston to try to figure out how to get some compensation for the hay that we cannot make. My husband is in Greensboro trying to hay there – we have two farms. Getting back and forth between the two farms has been a disaster. But what’s worse is we can’t get to our hay fields. We can’t get on them because they’re too wet and we can’t even get to them. The FSA office, I understand everybody’s trying but it’s incredibly frustrating, I do not believe there’s going to be any compensation. It takes so much time.

I was told that because some of the hay fields are in Orleans County, they can’t help me at the office that I just spent about two hours at. I have to go to Newport, to talk to them, and see if we can get compensation for the Orleans County. I’m just frustrated with how small farmers are going to be able to have any relief. There just doesn’t seem to be a way around the red tape for small farmers.”

Welch: You know, the situation Janet described, unfortunately, is all too common. What Janet needs is some money now, the crop, she can’t even get to let alone the harvest it. I was talking to a small business owner whose store was wiped out on State Street in Montpelier. She doesn’t need a loan, she really needs a grant. And the programs that we have don’t do that.

But if you remember, when we had COVID, and there was an order to shut businesses down, the government on a bipartisan basis very quickly came up with, in effect, grants for businesses. And for individuals. We don’t have that as part of the model. But what I’ve seen … is the need for some cash to just get from where we are to the other side and be able to stay in business. That’s not allowed now. But it’s certainly something that Becca and Bernie and I are going to talk about to see if there’s any way that we can do that.

Mental health help

Rep. Balint noted that many farmers may be feeling distress and trauma from crop losses and pointed people to the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) and the National Mental Health Crisis Line (988). 

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

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Story Written & Moderated by Mikaela Lefrak, Andrea Laurion, and April McCullum, Vermont Public

Story Link: https://www.vermontpublic.org/show/vermont-edition/2023-07-18/sen-welch-and-rep-balint-share-insights-on-federal-flood-relief