Blais, Comerford launch bills to establish disaster relief fund

SCREENSHOT

SCREENSHOT

Storm damage on Mathews Road in Conway, pictured in July. With towns suffering millions of dollars worth of damages due to torrential rainstorms throughout the summer, local legislators Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Jo Comerford have introduced legislation that could take some of the financial burden off communities, businesses and residents.

Storm damage on Mathews Road in Conway, pictured in July. With towns suffering millions of dollars worth of damages due to torrential rainstorms throughout the summer, local legislators Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Jo Comerford have introduced legislation that could take some of the financial burden off communities, businesses and residents. STAFF FILE PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Erosion damage in Conway at Fields Hill Road and Whately Road, pictured in July. With towns suffering millions of dollars worth of damages due to torrential rainstorms throughout the summer, local legislators Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Jo Comerford have introduced legislation that could take some of the financial burden off communities, businesses and residents.

Erosion damage in Conway at Fields Hill Road and Whately Road, pictured in July. With towns suffering millions of dollars worth of damages due to torrential rainstorms throughout the summer, local legislators Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Jo Comerford have introduced legislation that could take some of the financial burden off communities, businesses and residents. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 11-14-2023 6:07 PM

With towns across Massachusetts suffering millions of dollars worth of damages from torrential rainstorms throughout the summer, local legislators Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Jo Comerford have introduced legislation that could take some of the financial burden off communities, businesses and residents.

Introduced at a virtual press conference, bills HD.4669 and SD.2839, titled “An Act Creating a State Disaster Relief Fund for Emergency Management,” seek to establish a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) program that would provide quick funding to municipalities suffering from natural disasters, such as this year’s intense flooding, or human-made disasters, such as the 2022 arson of Orange’s former cereal factory.

Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t have a permanent disaster relief fund. Current laws only allow relief through supplemental appropriations approved by the Legislature and governor. These appropriations often face delays and leave communities hanging.

“We have felt the devastation of our constituents and our partners in municipal government as they worked tirelessly to repair and rebuild their communities,” said Blais, D-Deerfield. “I think that [Comerford] and I certainly feel the urgency here.”

If enacted, MEMA will establish a program using $250 million from excess capital gains revenue that would otherwise be transferred to the rainy day fund. The disaster fund would be sustained over time through the same revenue stream.

Money from the fund could be distributed even if a state or federal disaster is not declared. Payments — in the form of reimbursements, grants, matching funds, cost sharing arrangements or otherwise as determined by MEMA — could be made to towns, businesses, nonprofits and private individuals.

In presenting the bill on Tuesday, Blais and Comerford, D-Northampton, were joined by town officials from across Massachusetts, as well as other legislators, who talked about the physical and fiscal damages left in the wake of storms that resulted in as much as 8 inches of rainfall within an hour.

Conway Select Board Chairman Philip Kantor said his town was left devastated in July and the damages are far beyond what the town is capable of taking on with its budget.

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“As many of you may know, Conway beat all competitors in the month of July to be named by the National Weather Service as the rainiest city in North America,” Kantor said, referencing that the town received 21 inches of rain that month. “Spending money in deficit to fix our roads and culverts is tightrope-walking without a safety net and it’s terrifying.”

Conway suffered $3.9 million worth of damages, which is more than its annual non-school budget of $2.8 million.

Beyond his municipal perspective, Kantor was bundled up in warm clothes because his home’s heating system was destroyed. He said this bill could also benefit private homeowners hit by disasters.

“I’m sitting here in my home with a hat and winter jacket because I’m one of many people in town that had their heating system destroyed,” Kantor said. “To those of you here that have the ability to make this happen, I can’t tell you how much we need this.”

Other Pioneer Valley communities that suffered damage include Deerfield, which sustained more than $4 million in damages, and Northampton, which faces approximately $1.2 million in needed repairs, according to Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.

“This bill will help Massachusetts get honest about the kind of natural disaster challenges we’re going to face,” Sciarra said. “With the climate crisis, we know we are going to experience more frequent and more severe weather events like this summer, and that’s why I am so grateful that this bill has been filed.”

Other speakers included Deerfield Select Board Chair Carolyn Shores Ness, Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and North Andover Town Manager Melissa Rodrigues.

From here, the legislation gets admitted — which happened on what Comerford said is a “pretty quick timeline” — by the House and Senate. The bills will be sent to a committee for review and a public hearing. According to the Legislature’s website, the bills were referred to the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.