Press-Republican

June 22, 2012

Locals lobby for coverage of flood-debris cleanup

By SHAWN RYAN, Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — JAY — Flood waters spawned by Tropical Storm Irene deposited tons of debris all around Essex County. 

The question now is who should pay to remove it from private property.

Jay Town Supervisor Randy Douglas, who is chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, is spearheading a push to have the Federal Emergency Management Agency pick up the tab so property owners in Jay and other affected towns aren’t forced to pay higher taxes to cover the bill.

Jay already had to borrow $3 million just to cover safety issues in the immediate wake of Irene, and the town is at its borrowing limit.

SAFETY ISSUE

Douglas recently met with Phil Parr, federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Irene, along with a host of state and county officials, to tour several debris fields in the Town of Jay. They hoped to convince Parr that the debris constitutes a public-safety hazard; it’s Parr’s office that will have the final decision on FEMA funding.

“FEMA’s telling me that because they don’t qualify as an immediate threat, the responsibility should be on the local property owner,” Douglas said.

FEMA’s position, he said, is that landowners should bear the cost and that the town could force removal by enforcing local codes about garbage dumping if they don’t comply.

“It’s like rubbing salt in a wound. It’s like saying, ‘O.K., you’ve been flooded, you’ve lost everything you own; now you have other people’s debris on your property, and if you don’t get rid of it, I’m going to write you a ticket’,” Douglas said.

“I’m not doing that.”

CARAVAN

After a brief meeting at the Jay Town Offices and a stop at the Upper Jay Fire Station, a long caravan of cars and pickup trucks parked in a sandy field adjacent to the former Land of Make Believe property for the first stop on its tour.

The assembled officials made their way through waist-high grass and small swarms of blackflies to the first of the debris fields on the list. Piles of flood detritus the size of cars, made up mostly of tree limbs and broken pieces of lumber — but, in some places, entire structures — dotted the landscape within the wide bend in the Ausable River.

It’s Douglas’s assertion that the next time the waters mass in flood-prone Jay, these debris piles will be washed downstream and could damage or destroy the Jay Covered Bridge or the Emergency Services Memorial Bridge, 3 1/2 miles downstream.

This possibility, he says, constitutes a public-safety threat. He also pointed out that millions of dollars of federal and state money has been spent on locating and constructing these bridges over the past 20 years.

ASSESSING THREAT

But Parr had a different take on the situation.

In order to qualify under FEMA’s guidelines, the debris must be either on “improved land” or pose a safety threat in the event of a flood condition typical over a five-year period. 

“I don’t see this as being eligible,” he said, standing at the foot of one of the piles. “In no way would a five-year event take those bridges out. It’s not a threat to anyone. A five-year event is not going to pick this up.”

Douglas says FEMA has made exceptions for other towns throughout the country in the past and should make an exception here as well.

NOT IMPROVED LAND

The debris piles, Douglas said, were placed by the federal government in the first place.

“FEMA sent the EPA here to remove hazardous materials from flooded areas on private property, and piles of debris were sifted through and placed into bigger piles, and the gas tanks and propane tanks were removed,” he said.

He said they probably created larger piles to make it easier to remove later, but it has had the opposite effect.

Parr said he would read the Army Corps of Engineers report on the flood before making a final decision but seemed steadfast in his belief that the town would not qualify for funding.

“It has to be a threat to life or improved property. This isn’t improved property. It’s OK if (flooding) moves the debris around in the woods,” Parr explained.

“I’m with you. A 100- or a 500-year event will cause huge issues here … but I can only protect up to the five-year event, and even then ... (only) when there’s improved land or life at stake, and I’m sorry, I’m just not seeing it.”

Douglas countered that in his nine years as supervisor, he has seen seven declared states of emergency, “so I don’t believe anything to do with a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood. It happens. It just depends on the amount of rainfall.”

A decision is expected from FEMA in the next several weeks.

Douglas is already eyeing other sources of revenue. He has applied to the Department of Environmental Conservation for a $500,000 state grant, separate from the FEMA funding, to assist the town with debris removal.