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Release of FEMA funds not guaranteed

Veterans of past disasters say cities and counties must 'document everything' — or lose millions in federal aid

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer assure New Yorkers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse state and local government for costs incurred during cleanup from superstorm Sandy, those on the front lines of storm response will have to carefully document their expenses and activities now or lose those funds, according to those who have dealt with the federal agency in past disasters.

Veterans of the FEMA reimbursement process in other states say that recouping expenses is a complicated procedure, one that can be made smoother by maintaining a paper trail of all activities even immediately after a disaster.

Take Vermont, where towns are still trying to recover costs incurred last year during Tropical Storm Irene. “They require very detailed documentation of every single activity you undertake,” Sue Minter, Vermont’s Irene recovery officer, said of FEMA. “That can be challenging. In an emergency it isn’t a first instinct to document what you’re doing.”

Sandy’s destruction along the Staten Island shore. Tommy Miles/Flickr

Rules governing reimbursement are very precise, says Ben Rose, a public assistance officer with Vermont’s Emergency Management Office. “The burden is on the applicant to demonstrate why they should be eligible,” said Rose, who noted that the FEMA guidelines are strict because they were designed to prevent the waste of public money.

Tim Cullenen, the municipal manager of Rockingham, Vermont, said no scrap of paper is too small to save. “I would recommend to municipal people down there to document everything,” said Cullenen. “Keep six copies of every invoice, photos, pay sheets.  Just keep boxes and boxes because they are going to look at everything you got.”

All three Vermont officials said that FEMA was key to the state’s recovery, and that many requests for reimbursement had been filled or were being processed smoothly.  But they noted that towns should be prepared to appeal FEMA decisions.

For example, after Irene, rocks and trees tumbled from mountains into Rockingham and other towns in southeast Vermont. According to Cullenen, the Vermont state government encouraged municipalities to remove the debris. “We were told from the powers that be locally, ‘Do what you have to do. If you think it’s a threat, get it out,’” he said. Now FEMA refusing to cover those costs, and Rockingham and other towns are appealing the denial.

To avoid future disagreements between FEMA and local governments, it can help to have state government officials present at cleanup sites. “One of the lessons that Vermont learned is that we needed a stronger program in place so that when FEMA comes to town we can have people in the field with the right questions to ask,” Rose said. He added that  states must deploy officials immediately after the disaster so that the interests of local governments can be represented when damage is assessed.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised localities that the feds will deliver the funds. “Every local government will have their costs reimbursed by the federal government, by FEMA,” said Cuomo, joking that he was going to push for 100 percent if not 101 percent of costs to be recovered.

A spokesperson for New York State’s Office of Emergency Management says that city and county officials are accompanying FEMA representatives in the field, which will help ensure that federal and local officials agree on the costs to be covered.

But nothing is guaranteed. One veteran of disaster in Louisiana’s Livingston Parish, Council Member Ricky Goff, said that even direct orders from FEMA representatives on the scene to take specific actions may not guarantee local governments reimbursement for those efforts. Livingston is still trying to recoup $46 million the parish spent in the wake of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, after FEMA directed the parish to remove debris but then refused to cover the cost.

Goff made clear the Vermont experience was not an anomaly. “The biggest thing I can say to any municipality or parish or county is to do everything you humanly possibly can do to document and get FEMA to sign off,” said Goff.