Irene Continues To Exact A Toll For Homeowners Waiting For FEMA

08/21/12 5:50PM By Lynne McCrea
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AP/Toby Talbot
A notice of vacancy is seen on a flood-damaged house on Water Street in Northfield.

In Northfield, homeowners who are part of a FEMA buyout program have learned it will be fall before they can expect to see any money for their Irene-damaged homes.

Residents are grateful that the end is in sight. But for some, the months of waiting has exacted an emotional toll.

At a meeting  in late June, residents who've applied to the federal home buyout program got a status update from Ray Doherty of Vermont Emergency Management...

"Once we get the green light from FEMA, the town will get the sub-grant agreement from our agency, and then the buyout process can start," he said.

For nearly an hour, representatives from various state agencies and organizations reviewed timelines and details of the buyout program. The goal is to buy properties that are in danger of flooding again in the future, and put them off limits to redevelopment.

Among the homeowners in Northfield who've applied to the buyout program are Mike and Bonnie Pemberton.

"Could we purchase a house now if we had the chance to, or do they recommend waiting until the whole buyout process is done?" Mike Pemberton asked at the meeting.

The couple is anxious to get back in to a home of their own. They lived in their house on Water Street for 34 years and had only a few years left to pay on the mortgage.

Bonnie Pemberton says it's hard to think about taking on a whole new mortgage as they get closer to retirement.

"Our plan was that we'd be mortgage free," she said. "So, to go and live on your Social Security and whatever else you have - and have a mortgage - most folks at that stage don't. That's one of our biggest challenges moving forward."

The Pembertons consider themselves lucky, though. The day after Irene hit, a Burlington doctor offered the couple the use of his second home in Northfield.

"I've owned a part-time mowing business for years, and this is one of my clients and he called," Mike Pemberton said, his voice breaking with emotion, "and he offered the house to stay in. ‘Don't worry about it, we don't use it enough,' he said. 'You and your family move in for as long as you want.'"

Grateful for the offer, the Pembertons figured they'd be into a new house by June at the latest. Now, they worry about wearing out their welcome. They're also anxious about how they'll ever be able to replace the home they'd made with more than three decades of sweat equity.

"We've got to find the right situation all around," Bonnie Pemberton said. "There's tons of stuff for sale and the interest rates are right. It's just, if we knew what we had in pocket we'd know what we had to play with, what we could afford."

As she talks about their situation, Bonnie Pemberton's eyes well up and for a moment, she breaks down.

"It's hard," Mike said as he embraces his wife.

"It's just difficult, that's what it is," she said.

Clearly, the past year has been stressful. Three months before Irene swept through and destroyed their home it was damaged by the 2011 spring floods.

"We've been wanting to get off Water street. This is a heck of a way," she said.

"Not that way," he interjected.

"Because after the May flood we were fixing it all back up," she said.

"It was on the market," Mike said.

"The for sale sign went up and we said, 'OK,'" Bonnie added.

The Pembertons aren't the only ones at the meeting who've been deeply affected by Irene. One of their neighbors on Water Street, Jim Wilson, is also part of the buyout program.

Jim's wife, Melody, has been dealing with some health issues, and the couple has had to relocate twice since Irene's flooding rendered their home useless. At 67, Jim Wilson had hoped to be retiring in the next few years. He says the stress of the last 12 months has affected his health as well.

"The short term goal is to get through today and hope I wake up in the morning - to get through tomorrow," Wilson said. "I know.  And I wake up at night sometimes just to go to check, make sure Melody is still... you know," he said, not finishing his thought.

For Jim Wilson and Bonnie and Mike Pemberton, Irene exacted a toll that continues to mount, all these months later. After the meeting, they share stories of the many ways the storm has altered their lives.

But there are a few glimmers, too.

Tonight's meeting has helped the Pembertons feel that their goal of getting into a new home is closer to reality. They've identified some land, where they hope have a modular home built - maybe by October.

And the fact is, life has gone on after Irene.

They share stories about new babies in their families, and share a laugh or two.

On this early evening, the Northfield homeowners now have the latest FEMA handouts, and a renewed hope that things will get better.

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