Jamaica Homeowners Wait For Resolution

05/29/12 7:50AM By Susan Keese
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VPR/Susan Keese
Brett Morrison stands on the deck of what used to be his house in Jamaica. Morrison also lost the land underneath his house.

Many homeowners displaced by Tropical Storm Irene are still waiting to put their losses behind them and start over. But the wheels of government recovery programs turn at their own pace.

In a Jamaica neighborhood where the flood carried off four homes, the disaster's long aftermath is taking its toll.

On a brisk early spring day  Franny Sherwood walks the rebuilt gravel road that's the latest version of Water Street in Jamaica. The street runs parallel to a brook, once a leafy haven with a swimming hole.

"And we had a path down to the brook," Sherwood says. "And there was a locust tree and a maple tree and a crabapple tree.  And the brook is actually... " She shakes her head. "you know what? It's so changed it‘s hard to even remember."

The trees are gone now, replaced by what Sherwood calls a moonscape of boulders.

Sherwood's home of 20 years was the last house left standing when Irene transformed the brook into a torrent that picked up and destroyed the four houses beyond hers, and washed away the land beneath them.

All that's left is a strip of former back yards, dotted with outbuildings, abandoned gardens, and disconnected pipes.

Sherwood spies one of her displaced neighbors, Dave Kaneshiro, clearing debris on what's left of his land.

"Hi Dave!"  she calls. "Looks like you're making progress."

"It's better than sitting on my thumbs waiting for the federal government," Kaneshiro answers.

Kaneshiro is a retired engineer and a widower. He raised three children in the big white house that vanished in an instant on August 28.

Now he's waiting for the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Buyout program to decide about the four Water Street properties.

The federal buyout program permanently removes flood-prone structures and offers payments for property owners, which could mean a chance to start over for some.

Kaneshiro has been assured he'll qualify for the buyout program. He learned in February that the four Jamaica properties were among those recommended to FEMA by the state.

But the federal deliberation process has been fraught with backups and delays.

 "The hardest thing is just waiting," Kaneshiro says. "Waiting to see what the results are so I can go on with life. I'm still trying to get over it. It's gone. It's gone. It's gone. Now you gotta start a new life. And the finalization of the mitigation program would be the first step after the flood."

Kaneshiro actually has the prospect of a new life waiting. A long-lost sweetheart from his youth in California spotted him on a national news broadcast after the storm.  They've been carrying on a long-distance courtship.

"So hopefully our future, Kathleen and I, will help in the adjustment to a new life," he says.

Kaneshiro says the waiting has been hard on the fledgling romance. But he won't leave Vermont until his property changes hands and things are settled.

Even then, he says he won't forget the old life that was snatched away. He picks up a toy plastic racket from the ground.

"That's our old badminton set..."  He laughs, then laughs again, as if remembering something in the past.

If and when the FEMA buyout happens, the four unlivable properties will be turned into a public green space.

"It'll be nice," he says, "I think even though it started as a disaster, people will enjoy coming here."

One neighbor who isn't visiting his land much is Brett Morrison, a divorced father of three young children.  We met in a hotel lobby near his workplace.

The contents of Morrison's house splintered into pieces when the building was washed downstream on the torrent and then hit the bridge at the end of Water Street.

Morrison spent weeks searching debris islands in the West River for any remnant of his old life. But he says he's stopped that mostly futile exercise.

"I realized it probably wasn't healthy," he says.

Morrison spent the winter in a donated condo at Stratton, where his kids could visit often.

"Actually it was not a good winter," he says. "But it was more the combination of being transient, and an overwhelming confluence of uncertainty, I think."

Morrison's biggest worry was the mortgage he still owed on his property. But in February his bank and his volunteer lawyer reached an agreement.

He says, "As I understand it, I don't owe the mortgage amount anymore. But they hold that amount as a lien on the property. So any transfer of the property then will be satisfied in one way or another."

That means that if the Hazard Mitigation buyout happens, the bank will claim its share. He doesn't know how it will turn out. But Morrison doesn't expect to buy a new house anytime soon.

"As much as I want a home," Morrison says, "I think I'm going to want to be a renter for a little while. "

He says he'd be reluctant now to live on Water Street, despite the overwhelming kindnesses of his Jamaica neighbors. He says Tropical Storm Irene served as a reminder that floods almost like this one have happened in the past here. He says he wouldn't feel safe.

Andy Coyne also worries about the danger. His house at the end of Water Street is still there.

But as the town's health officer, he watched his neighbors' houses get swept downstream and explode when they hit the bridge.

Now, he says, those images won't stop repeating in his mind. He thinks he may be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

"It's a process that we're going through, " He explains. "How  such a radical change could happen. And it's never going to be changed back to anything like it was."

But something else changed for Coyne, in the process of working with his neighbors to repair the damage and make sure everyone was taken care of.

He explains, "The thing that has happened for me, is I have a different sense of community. I didn't know how much I loved the town. And I have a different perspective on my neighbors and the people that live around here."

At the Jamaica Town Meeting in March, Coyne was nominated and elected to the town select board.  There's a lot of work left to bring the town back and Coyne says he's like to have a hand in it.

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