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VDRF: Many Irene Cases Left To Resolve

VPR/ Steve Zind

It’s been two years since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont, and while much of the damage has been repaired, scars visible and otherwise remain.

That’s the case for folks like Raelene Lemery of Stockbridge. Irene destroyed the road to her home, flooding her basement. She couldn’t get to her house and so the water in the basement left mold in its wake.

That led to the loss of clothing, furniture, cabinets, appliances, and items of emotional value including photos of her son, who died in a motorcycle accident when he was 18. 

It was seven months before she could return to her home. And while she was away, thieves cleaned out her garage. Finally neighbors came and helped clean up her house and repair the basement. But paying for the work meant digging deep into her pockets. And that’s something that the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund was designed to help with.

Raelene Lemery struggled initially with how to access the money and complained the process was confusing. But eventually she was able to get the construction materials she needed through VDRF funding.

But Lemery’s complaints about the confusing nature of who can get what from VDRF and when brings us to David Coates, chair of the Vermont Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group which manages the Irene relief fund.

Coates says VDRF raised $7.7 million for Irene recovery, which includes $1 million from FEMA for mobile home condemnation awards. So far, VDRF has distributed $3.5 million from that pool to the people who need it.  But deciding who qualifies for help and how much money will remain in the fund once all of the Irene cases are closed can be hard to determine.

David Coates spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb, and explained how individual relief cases are handled.

“We go through a case manager system, which is the only way to do this allocation process. So they’re the ones that qualify the applicants for VDRF funds, and then they present the cases.”

The case managers look at all available need. Coates said VDRF is the fund of last resort, so people have to go through the FEMA process first.

“In some cases, they may not have appropriate estimates in terms of what it’s going to cost for the reconstruction, or in some cases, like the lady from Stockbridge, I think, the mold came later, and we’ve been funding cases like that as well,” Coates said.

Raelene Lemry said the application process was too burdensome, but Coates disagreed.

“There’s a case manager assigned for every region, and the case manager is really the quarterback. I don’t think it’s that complicated at all.”

The case manager system was funded by FEMA and four of the managers will be staying on through the end of November.

See a county-by-county breakdown of where VRDF money was spent.

Others have expressed concern about the amount of money left in the fund. A VDRF spokesperson recently said that they fund will hang on to some of the money for other disasters.

“According to our information, it looks like 155 cases have not been closed yet of the original 710, and we do know there are going to be a few cases coming to us from the home buy outs that are really taking a long time with FEMA. So we’re looking at of the 155 plus maybe 30 more, that we will probably only see about 100 of those,” Coates said.

Coates reported that the allocations committee told him that there could be up to $1 million left in the fund.

But is that money that could be going to Irene relief?

“Not to Irene, we will have taken care of all of the Irene cases at that point. And just in the last 60 days, we’ve declared two other emergencies that qualify. One being the flooding Memorial Day weekend, and then FEMA declared through July 12th, all of the flooding that we had in that period of time as a disaster. So we have indicated that those will qualify as well, because we had funds remaining,” Coates said.

The grant money is capped at $20,000. Coates said that limit was created to ensure that some money goes to all of the families that need it.

“We estimated 800 cases which would need our funding, based on FEMA’s estimates. So we knew that we needed to have an allocation process, otherwise we could have expended it all within a short number of cases.”

That money often doesn’t meet the amount needed to repair damage, and many Irene victims are taking out loans to pay for the damage.

“We do go through a qualification process, and if they do have available funding, they have to use that first. Now that doesn’t mean they wipe out their retirement funds or anything like that. However, we’ve had a lot of people that haven’t really needed it, in terms of their capacity, they’ve had the funds, and that was really the criteria set up to begin with. And since we don’t pay individuals, we pay the suppliers or the folks that are actually doing the work, we have to have all of that in place. And the case managers manage that process,” Coates explained.

Coates said there aren’t specific income limits to those who qualify for funding, but the process does take into account all available resources.

VPR held a one-day fundraiser for VDRF that raised $600,000. Wertlieb asked if the fund is meeting those donors’ intent if we’re still hearing stories of people hurting financially after getting damaged by Irene.

“I really believe we are meeting the intent of the donors in this case. We’ve spoken to a lot of them. I think the case is,it’s a need-based system that we have. And if a lot of other resources are available, they really have to look for those resources, because we have other folks that don’t have those resources,” Coates said.

Other have express concern that some of the money will be held onto for the next disaster. Andrea wrote to VPR, “I'm guessing that many people gave spontaneously to help people with needs from Irene, and are surprised by this information, as well. I would hope that VDRF would let people know that if they did donate under other beliefs that the money could be returned to them so they can resend it to an organization that will disperse it as close to immediately as possible to people still having problems from Irene.”

Wertlieb asked if it was misleading to raise the money in the name of Irene relief and then decide to hold some of it for the next disaster.

“I wouldn’t say it was misleading, because at one point we just didn’t really know where we were going on this in terms of getting the appropriate amount of resources, which eventually we did. Plus, we aren’t done. We still know that we could have 155 cases, and plus we do know on the buyout program that some of those are still going to need additional funds. We hear a lot about those because FEMA is still processing those and it’s taken a long time to get the money, so we have to have a reserve for those as well,” Coates says. Here’s the breakdown.

VDRF raised $7.7 million.

  • $3.5 million has gone to 336 Irene recovery cases.
  • $90,000 has gone to 8 cases of spring flooding in 2013.

VDRF has $4.1 million in the fund.

  • 155 Irene recovery cases are still waiting to be resolved.
  • 120 FEMA buy-outs are still in progress, some of those cases may have result in unmet need, so VDRF expect to provide grants in as many as 30 of those cases.

VDRF expects to hold as much as $1 million in reserve.
See more on Irene recovery on VPR’s Mapping the Money project.

Coates says VDRF has developed a policy on when funds will be dispersed: in the case of a FEMA declared disaster, or based on just the severity of a storm.

“We know that the only way to handle this efficiently is with a case manager system. So what we hope to do, and we’re working with the Red Cross on this now, is to have case managers that will be trained, and ready to go into the field immediately, which means they’ll have to be trained every year again, and not moth-balling the long-term recovery committees, so that if something happens we can immediately get them back up. We had Vermont Emergency Management also working with us, the Irene Recovery Office, they’re going to be closing down here soon, but all of those come into play,” Coates said.

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