July 25, 2021

Waldo County officials start on path to disaster aid with many questions

BELFAST — More than 100 officials of towns and school districts in Waldo County crowded into the Belfast Library on Monday to take the first — and likely the easiest — step in receiving federal disaster aid.

Officials filled out a one-page form that indicated in what ways and in what places each municipality spent money on the ice storm — sawing, plowing, scraping, running generators, spreading salt.

The cost of storm damage and repair to municipal properties in Waldo County is roughly estimated at $1.6 million, according to Rick Farris, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.

The paperwork filled out Monday will set in motion disaster relief for the county’s towns through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but just how soon dollars will flow in is less than clear.

George Jones, a FEMA representative at the meeting, told the group that he expected the first inspectors to be in Waldo County in about a week. After assessing the damage to a municipality, the inspector will file a damage survey report.

Jones said that FEMA will disburse money to the state about two weeks after that report is issued. He did not know how long it will take the state to send disaster relief funds to towns.

FEMA has not yet set a “close date” for the ice storm disaster, which means that municipalities cannot be certain to what date they can receive reimbursements for storm-related work.

Sharon Perry, the town manager of Winterport, said after the meeting that she was concerned about how the close date could affect disaster relief. She said many of the 62 miles of roads in Winterport are lined with high snow and ice, and as it melts, water runs onto the road and then refreezes. If this is happening a month from now — perhaps weeks after FEMA’s close date — she asked, would money then spent on scraping and salting be eligible for FEMA reimbursement.

At this early stage of disaster relief, some of the questions about reimbursement aren’t answerable. For example, one official asked whether his town could be reimbursed for using additional carbon blades on its snowplows. Jones told the official that such a request would need to be discussed at FEMA headquarters.

Wendy Meador, a spokewoman at FEMA’s Augusta office, said that many such technical questions will come up in the course of towns’ appraising damages. “My suggestion is that they include every conceivable thing they think they should ask for,” Meador said.

Still, what is reimbursable and what is not is tricky. For example, when Jones was asked if a town’s purchase of a generator could be reimbursed, he said that FEMA won’t pay for the generator, but will pay for the hourly cost of running it.

What this means for municipalities is that meticulous record keeping will be required for FEMA reimbursement. For example, on any given hour a town would need to identify what roads were being worked on by how many people using what equipment.

“I really need some guidelines for the price of a pickup truck and two men with chain saws,” one woman told Jones. He told the group that it was up to each municipality to examine the hourly rates they’ve historically paid to contractors and use those figures.

FEMA has yet to come to a firm decision about disaster aid for snowmobile trails, a question brought up by Waldo County officials Monday. According to Paul Murphy, a public assistance officer with FEMA, the agency is consulting with its attorney about reimbursing the costs of clearing what could be hundreds of tree-clogged trails. He expects the agency will issue a statement on the subject this week.

But FEMA is not budging on its policy of reimbursement of fixed contracts that many Waldo County towns have with private companies.

Winterport, for example, pays a set price per mile to the three contractors it hired to keep its roads plowed and sanded this winter. Those firms have been overwhelmed by the costs of the ice storm, Perry said, and she is concerned that the firms might be unable to continue work in coming months. But Murphy said that FEMA will not reimburse municipalities with fixed-cost contracts because “the risk is firmly on the bidder,” not the town.

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