Towns Not Likely To Qualify For FEMA Funds For Tornado Damage

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Storms , Municipal Finance

The Robert B. Our Company has been busy this past week breaking down the brush pile at the town landfill and creating windrows with the wood chips. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Peake: State May Provide Disaster Relief Money

Municipal expenditures related to the July 23 tornado are not likely to reach the threshold required for federal reimbursement, local officials say.

Qualifying expenditures in Harwich total $1,256,200, according to Town Administrator Christopher Clark, and slightly more than $438,000 in Chatham, according to Finance Director Alix Heilala. Yarmouth reported $434,117 in reimbursable costs. Even with additional damage amounts from Barnstable and elsewhere, the total of all expenditures in Barnstable County related to the weather event will be significantly below the $9.6 million to qualify for a federal disaster declaration.

“We’ll probably be short of the $9.6 million Federal Emergency Management Agency threshold,” Clark said. “But we hope our state legislative delegation can do something in the way of funding.” The assessment had to be filed with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency’s disaster recovery department last Friday.

Rep. Sarah Peake and other state and federal officials met with local officials and viewed the damage in Harwich the day after the tornado. She said after seeing the tornado's impact, she didn't think there'd be a problem reaching the FEMA threshold.

“We left that day looking at ways that we could supplement any kind of FEMA relief,” she said. Also present that day were Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Representatives Tim Whalen and Bill Crocker, Senator Julien Cyr, Senator Edward Markey and Congressman William Keating.

Baker's administration provided $1 million in emergency loans for small businesses on the Cape impacted by the tornado, as well as additional tourism marketing funds, and Peake said she has been in touch with the House ways and means committee about reimbursing storm expenses through a supplemental budget. She said she's looking at supplemental budget legislation passed after the natural gas explosion in Lawrence last year and the tornado outbreak that hit the Springfield area in 2011 as a models.

“I am hopeful we'll be able to give directly to these towns for this unexpected event,” Peake said. The legislature is in recess, she added, so nothing will happen until legislators return after Labor Day.

Harwich's Municipal costs related to the damage, cleanup and recovery from the tornado that ripped through a 2.7-mile stretch of town was initially assessed at $3.2 million. Clark said, however, that FEMA will not reimburse the town for many of those costs. His original assessment included $1.5 million in tree replacement costs for the estimated 3,000 trees destroyed on town property alone. But FEMA will not reimburse the town for tree replacements, nor for major revenue losses at the Cranberry Valley Golf Course, which had to close for several days due to tree damage.

The major contributor to town costs was tree removal, estimated at $1,060,000, with $743,280 of that owed to contractors hired to remove trees. The town also spent $151,000 in emergency protective measures, including straight time and overtime pay for police, fire and water department personnel, materials and equipment. There was an additional $45,000 in expenses relating to public parks, cemeteries and recreation facilities.

Most of Chatham's costs were for damage to equipment, buildings and other property ($152,000) and rental of equipment like wood chippers ($106,000). Heilala said other costs included overtime and regular salaries, tree removal and contracted services.

Clark said state officials, realizing the Cape has a short tourist season, provided a lot of recovery assistance, sending crews from the department of conservation and recreation and the department of corrections. Costs would have been a lot higher without state help, he said, adding that the state benefits from tourists dollars through sales, room and meals taxes.

“We’re hoping the governor and the speaker can do a supplemental appropriation to help Cape communities in this fiscal year. It would alleviate major financial impacts on the town,” Clark said.

Marie Jane Handy, Director of Accounts at the state Department of Revenue Division of Local Services, approved Harwich's request to deficit spend up to $1 million, Clark said. Those funds must be raised through property taxes either in fiscal 2020 or 2021.

“If we don’t get [state disaster] money, we’ll need to call a special town meeting this fall to access the stabilization fund to pay these tree contractors,” Clark said. “The $1.3 million to be paid for by the town is fairly traumatic.”

Tim Wood contributed to this story.