MEMA declines to pursue federal disaster declaration for region

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 08-30-2023 4:43 PM

Following three torrential downpours that wiped out roads in Conway and Deerfield in July, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has declined to seek a federal disaster declaration because the monetary damages don’t meet the federal threshold.

In an Aug. 25 email to area towns, MEMA Director Dawn Brantley laid out a list of reasons why the state agency is unable to seek a federal disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Key reasons, Brantley cited, are the three storms are considered separate events, reimbursable damage thresholds were not met, and the storms “did not exceed the capability of the state and local governments to respond.”

“While this is not the outcome we hoped for given the impact these storms had in our communities and the significant challenges ahead,” she wrote, “we remain committed to partnering with our emergency management agencies, municipal and legislative officials, small businesses and other relevant stakeholders. We will continue to work hard to find as many avenues for assistance as we can and look forward to continued collaboration.”

At Conway’s Select Board meeting Monday, Chair Philip Kantor expressed anger at the decision and said the town needs as much help as it can get, with storm damages rivaling the nonschool portion of the annual budget. Short-term estimates for repairs put Conway at $3.9 million in damages, while Deerfield is facing $4.7 million.

“This was the worst natural disaster in our 260-year history, if dollar value means anything,” Kantor said. “It is staggering to me, the lack of help we’ve gotten from our state government, except for [the Department of Transportation.”

Brantley noted in her email that FEMA would likely consider the storms to be separate events because there were five to six days between each storm and any initial damage estimations would likely be decreased because FEMA historically cuts those estimations in half — which Kantor said is ridiculous.

Town Administrator Veronique Blanchard noted they did not expect the region to meet the federal disaster declaration, although Kantor said Conway still needs assistance.

“We are a small village masquerading as a town. This is the town government,” he said gesturing to himself, fellow Select Board member Erica Goleman, Administrative Assistant Adam Reed and Blanchard. “We need help.”

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In Deerfield, though, the town is striking a different tone, as it will continue to work with regional legislators, as well as those serving areas like North Andover, which was also crushed by the August storms.

“I’m more positive. I never anticipated us getting a federal declaration. … This is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Select Board Chair Carolyn Shores Ness. “It’s a clear-cut process right now and we just have to really make sure that the legislative delegation knows we are pretty desperate for reimbursement of what we are outlaying right now.”

Shores Ness said one avenue the state could go down is creating a resiliency fund similar to the $20 million that was set aside for farmers earlier this month through a supplemental budget because it could allow communities to quickly access money when needed.

“Given the amount of events that we have — and the severity of events — they’ve got to fund this,” Shores Ness said. “We’ll be advocating for it. These events are going to keep happening.”

Brantley’s email lays out a strict series of requirements MEMA must meet to request a disaster declaration from its federal counterpart, including total damages, estimated cost of assistance, available resources, imminent threats to public health and safety, hazard mitigation and disaster history, among others.

Shores Ness said this long list of stringent requirements often plays against small towns because they are crafted for the entire country.

“There’s a lot of things that go against us as rural areas. The guidelines are national, it’s the same guidelines for everybody,” Shores Ness said. “Always our best bet was to have our legislative delegation fight for us and get funding.”

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