In January, HUD approved $21.6 million in disaster funds for Vermont. Eighty percent, or $17.3 million, of the money was targeted for the “the most impacted” counties. The remaining 20%, or $4.3 million, was available to the rest of the counties in the state, including Windham County. And, according to Laura Sibilia, project director for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, much of the $4.3 million was already slated to fund portions of some flood hazard mitigation programs, including buyouts of flood-damaged properties.
Using estimates already in place at the time of HUD’s initial decision in January, Washington and Windsor counties were the only two counties that had more than $10 million in unmet need – HUD’s threshold for eligibility to the larger portion of the funding. According to the same estimates, Windham had $8.9 million in unmet need.
As soon as HUD announced the allocation of funds, people in Windham County, as well as in Montpelier, began to question the math. “We knew Windham County had extensive needs,” said Jen Hollar, Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development, “if not the same, then similar to the need in Washington and Windsor counties.”
Sibilia says HUD’s numbers appear to have been based on early FEMA and SBA reports. Damage estimates continued to mount throughout the fall and winter. “Our EBAC (emergency business assistance coordinator) program identified $8 million in damage in Wilmington alone,” Sibilia said. “The Bellows Falls town manager said he had $2 million in damage just to one bridge, and Brattleboro had $2 million in damage to Brattleboro Housing Authority property. Just with those, we were already over the threshold.”
Hollar says her department started working with HUD and Vermont’s congressional delegation right away to “get some flexibility” on the allocation of funds. Sibilia says everyone from the local level to the federal level was championing Windham County’s cause. “It was a little surprising to me how much in our corner the state was,” Sibilia says, “how hard they pushed, and how hard the federal delegation was pushing. They really came through for us.”
In a joint statement on HUD’s decision, Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch said, “This waiver provides crucial flexibility to the state and will help the cities and towns of Windham County continue on the road to recovery. So many resilient Vermonters are still working to rebuild their lives in the wake of Irene. These investments will support the residents of Windham County as they recover and move forward.”
Now, Sibilia says, it’s up to Windham County towns and residents to take advantage of the opportunity. The grants are available to towns, nonprofit organizations, commercial businesses, and other parties. The funds must address unmet housing, economic development, and infrastructure needs caused by Tropical Storm Irene (or the 2011 spring floods). According to a Vermont Department of Economic, Housing, and Community Development document, the funds could be used for repairing homes and buildings damaged by flooding, relocating residents or businesses to safer areas, homeownership assistance, tourism and marketing efforts, new housing to replace damaged housing, public services, debris removal, and a number of other recovery-related projects.
While regular CDGB funds for private projects are usually applied for and administered through a municipality, Sibila says business owners and organizations can apply directly to the Vermont Community Development Program for the disaster recovery CDGB funds.
Homeowners can apply for grants for down payment assistance and repairs through the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust.
The state will hold a series of grant workshops around the state, including one in Windham County, before they begin taking applications in September. Hollar says her department will work with applicants to help develop their grant application. Applications will be approved based on criteria already identified in an action plan. “The action plan lays out the scoring criteria, including need related to flood damage, how many will benefit from the application whether from jobs created, or housing that’s created – how much leverage do you get for the resources.”
Windham 2 Rep. Ann Manwaring notes that many of the projects developed under the FEMA Long Term Recovery process are perfect for the block grants. “I hope Wilmington does decide to apply for a block grant for one of the projects that’s important to the town,” Manwaring said. “The FEMA process identified a number of projects – pick one!”
Sibilia says the grants could fund the next step toward further federal funding required for many of the projects: a feasibility study. “If you’re looking to create a community center, do you have a business model? Do you have drawings? Do you have projections three years out? If you don’t, this is an opportunity to get a planning grant to develop a study that will make your project more fundable.” She notes that state and county officials have acknowledged there is a good argument for significant CDGB planning money to be brought in for the FEMA Long Term Recovery projects.
Sibilia urges potential applicants to start working on their grant now – even before applications are available. “People shouldn’t be dissuaded because they don’t have grant-writing experience,” she says. “It’s harder when you don’t, but you can do it and there are people and agencies that will help you. Don’t wait for the training, ask the Windham Regional Commission or BDCC to help. This is a big opportunity: Don’t wait.”