Confusion Over Flood Relief For Second Home Owners

07/17/12 7:50AM By Nancy Eve Cohen
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VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
A "second home" in Wardsboro that was rental property when the flood tore through.

When the floodwaters of Irene tore through the state some second-homeowners lost the homes they loved, just like primary residents. But there's been some confusion about who is eligible for federal funding.

There are all kinds of second homeowners. There are those from out-of-state who have vacation homes here. And there are folks like Bobby Arms, a Wardsboro-native who, before Irene, rented out his small house on Wardsboro Brook. But Irene picked it up and nearly cracked it in two.

"The whole front wall was gone," said Arms "The river water was right here. That's where it was going through instead of being back in the channel where it is now and where it had normally been. It was right here."

The force of the water also destroyed two other houses nearby. One belongs to a family that lived here full-time. Another, that washed away was owned by a Connecticut man. Bobby Arms says taxpayers should be treated the same.

"Everybody is the same!" said Arms. "You've all got your money invested. They all contribute to the community, in many ways, whether it's just coming to store or buying groceries or buying gas to go back home. I would say we are the same. The difference is you don't live here, but if there's a program we ought to be involved with it."

There is one called the Hazard Mitigation Program. And just as the name implies it's designed to mitigate or reduce hazards from floods in the future. The way it works is FEMA awards funding to towns to purchase damaged properties. There's additional money for the town to demolish the structures and create a green space that will never be built on again. So in the next big storm there'd be nothing to destroy.

When a river is flooding the river doesn't differentiate, between whether it's a primary property or a secondary property," said Clasen.

Michael Clasen, the chair of the state's Hazard Mitigation Committee, says primary homes are the priority for the state, but Vermont is also approving the buy out of second-homes.

"Doesn't really matter who owns the property," said Clasen. "The ultimate goal is to take those properties out of the flood plain and reduce future costs."

But there has been confusion about who is eligible. Right after the flood FEMA told Bobby Arms they couldn't help him. And in the fall FEMA Mitigation Engineer Richard Downer encouraged only some of the homeowners to consider asking their town to buy them out.

 "Early in the process I was telling people that second homes were not eligible, said Downer. "I later received a memo indicating that the state of Vermont would accept applications on behalf of second homeowners. There is no FEMA regulation preventing that. It's entirely up to the state how they spend their Hazard Mitigation funds. So, we started to encourage second homeowners to apply."

But not everybody got the message.

"They said since it's a secondary home there's nothing they can do for us, said Jane Whitman from Concord, Massachusetts.

Whitman got this information from FEMA in a phone call back in September. The flood plowed right through her small vacation home in Jamaica.

"We finally were able to buy this little camp in the woods that we loved!" said Whitman.

Whitman and her husband hoped to spend more time there as they got older.

"We're mid 50s, you know. It's hard to recover that kind of savings," said Whitman. "I mean it was a kind of a retirement savings account. I mean, we had gotten zero for it."

Whitman knew nothing about the hazard mitigation program until a few weeks ago. Besides Whitman there are three other second homes that were destroyed in Jamaica

Lexa Clark, the chair of Jamiaca's selectboard says the town never considered second-homeowners, because they were told not to.

"We haven't heard anything from FEMA that there's money for second homeowners," said Clark. "At the time they told us about the hazard mitigation they said, ‘possibly maybe in the future.' They didn't give us a time or a deadline or anything like that."

But other towns did apply on behalf of second-homeowners. Including Wardsboro which has applied on behalf of both Bobby Arms and the homeowner from Connecticut

There is some good news for towns that still might want to apply on behalf of second-homeowners. The state is expecting more money in the fall for another round of applications.

So far the state has approved buying out eight second-homes and 92 primary residences. But FEMA still has to approve them.

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