By Ted Waddell
LIVINGSTON MANOR August 3, 2001 Folks in the hamlet of Livingston Manor know a lot about flooding and are fed up with the federal governments apparent lack of interest in bailing them out of high water.
According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, the folks in New York State are worth about a buck and a half each when it comes to getting disaster relief dollars.
In January of that year, the Flood of 1996 caused millions of dollars in damage to the countys infrastructure, and FEMA came to the rescue after several communities in Sullivan County were declared federal disaster areas.
But when the the Flood of 2000 caused an estimated $5 million in damage to Livingston Manor, FEMA said there wasnt enough damage to get federal disaster relief money.
Tell that to the hard-hit residents of a hamlet that has three rivers running through it the Beaverkill, the Cattail and the Willowemoc and they dont buy it.
A Flood of Damages
From December 16-17, 2000, raging waters erased homes, ripped 12 acres out of a local riverside campground, flooded basements, ruined cars and left a lot of folks wading in mud.
Tony Leones horses were trapped in a barn and were whisker-deep in the roiling flood when he managed to rescue them.
All of Catherine Rosenthals clothes got caked in mud.
Gus Eklund was one of the lucky ones who had some flood insurance, but the 15-year resident of the Manor figures hes out more than $65,000 in ruined trucks and bulldozers.
And mention FEMA in the hamlet, folks get riled up. A lot of residents think that, for FEMA in 2000, it was a case of too little, too early.
You aint getting nothing off those people, said Eklund of FEMA. They aint interested in us, [and] I dont know what were going to do to get them interested.
The Red Cross was the only people who did anything up here, he added. The Red Cross is all right in my book.
This is a problem that should be taken care of, not just talked about, said Don Benton, who lives along the Little Beaverkill. Government should take care of it. . . . The towns budget goes to hell all we do is patch and patch.
Resident John Parker said of FEMAs decision not to provide assistance to victims of the Flood of 2000: Were all pissed. . . . Were talking about government versus a small town. They really dont care about us [because] we arent big enough.
Judy and John Melchick live nearby along Covered Bridge Road. After 25 years, they are used to floods but suffered about $5,000 in damages last year. The high water mark in their basement was two feet from the living room floor. During the flood, Judy Melchick watched helplessly as the residents of five nearby trailers lost everything they had.
Inspired by an editorial in a local paper, Melchick wrote a letter to Joe Allbaugh, director of FEMA, on June 6.
She thinks there werent enough FEMA investigators, and since they looked at the area during the winter, snow covered much of the damage.
Back in December, a couple of FEMA people were here, she recalled. They looked around my property for a few minutes and then left. But the snow was covering everything, so I dont think they really assessed the real damage.
Melchick got a brief letter dated June 22 from Francis X. McCarthy, deputy director of FEMAs congressional and intergovernmental affairs division.
FEMA is currently reviewing your concerns and will get back to you as soon as possible, said McCarthy.
After a while, I didnt hear anything from anybody, so I started writing letters, she added.
Letters went out to local senators, congressmen and assemblymen.
So far, Melchick said she hasnt heard from any of the elected officials.
Last month, Melchick received word that FEMA wasnt going to get involved because the area had not been declared a disaster by the president.
In a lengthy letter dated July 11, Laurence W. Zensinger, director of FEMAs recovery division (readiness, response and recovery directorate), said, While we sympathize with your unfortunate situation,our ability to assist people affected by disasters is limited. . . . When a disaster strikes and the situation is beyond the capabilities of local and state resources, the governor may request a federal disaster declaration to make funds available to the residents and communities affected.
According to Zensinger, FEMA conducted joint preliminary damage assessments, but because the impact of the storm was not of the severity and magnitude that exceeded the capabilities of the state and local government, the states request was denied.
FEMA is unable to assist you. . . Thank you for writing FEMA, said Zensinger.
Fed up with FEMA, Melchick started a grassroots effort to get bureaucratic feet out of the mud and take another look at flood damage in Livingston Manor and surrounding communities. More than 2,000 folks have signed the petition.
We, the people of Sullivan County, cannot understand why the flood of December 17, 2000 was not considered a disaster great enough to warrant federal assistance. Scores of residents suffered considerable property damage, and many have not recovered to date, said the petition.
Continuing, In addition, without aid from FEMA, the burden of increased taxes to pay for the repair to roads, bridges and public property will fall on the taxpayers, a large percentage of whom are working class or senior citizens on fixed incomes.
Melchicks view of FEMAs response to the Flood of1996?
They were great, she said.
How about FEMAs ruling on federal disaster relief following the Flood of 2000?
I think they did a terrible job, she said. We want them to come back and take another look at Sullivan County.
Talking It Out
Last week, Town of Rockland Supervisor Patricia Pomeroy held a town meeting to discuss the flooding problem, hear peoples views about FEMAs response and look at solutions. The meeting was held at the firehouse. About 60 people attended.
Guest speakers included a whos who list of folks in the know about high water and how floods can devastate a community: Mark E. Ferrari, hazard mitigation specialist with the NY State Emergency Management Office (SEMO); Bob Trotta, engineering supervisor with the Sullivan County Department of Public Works (DPW); Brian P. Brustman, district manager, Sullivan County Soil & Water Conservation District; and Nat Gillespie, Catskills Coordinator of Trout Unlimited.
Despite their great beauty, the rivers that run through our community can cause great damage, said Pomeroy. FEMA denied our request to help us alleviate the flood damage we had last December.
According to Ferrari, SEMO cannot provide money for stream maintenance (as a way of preventing future flooding). He said the state offers help to communities through its Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, which is designed to provide grant money for planning.
He added that a lot of problems related to flooding are caused by upstream development without regard to whats downstream.
Ferrari suggested the town look into establishing a Stream Team. In early 1998, FEMA and SEMO initiated the concept of a stream team to provide guidance about eligibility, scope of work and permitting requirements for any stream project in counties included in a Presidential disaster declaration.
A stream team is composed of representatives of FEMA, SEMO, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The teams mission is to inspect proposed project sites and provide guidance to public assistance program applicants. The stream team may be activated by a federal/state inspection team.
According to a publication titled Flood Protection for Your Community in New York State (SEMO, NYS DEC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Local governments have long recognized that routine work to clear and maintain streams is important to reduce flooding. Such mitigation efforts alone may not always prevent major flooding, but they can significantly reduce flooding impacts. . . In most situations, stream maintenance is considered a local government or private land ownership responsibility.
The publication continued, Routine maintenance usually involves clearing and snagging the removal of dislodged woody vegetation and other debris from stream channels and banks. Such work can reduce unwanted erosion and sedimentation that results from the accumulation of debris in streams and contributes to flooding. Even routine maintenance will not entirely eliminate sedimentation, erosion or even flooding.
The authors recommended resisting the urge to channelize to dredge and straighten streams, as this will increase water velocity and waterway instability . . . [and] can also create conditions that may increase flood potential, exactly the opposite of your flood protection goals.
The Local Impact
According to Trotta, FEMAs rule of thumb number ($1.50 x the state population) must exceed the total amount of disaster damages before the federal agency will step in with disaster relief.
In order to qualify for FEMA assistance, an area must suffer damages totaling in excess of $1.50 per person in the state. Since the approximate population in NYS is 18 million, municipal (not personal) damages must be at least $27 million in order to qualify.
Presidential declaration of a disaster area is based upon a FEMA recommendation.
Brustman said that, while NYS DEC nixes the use of machinery in riverbeds (without a special permit), debris such as logs and stumps can be removed by hand.
He offered a few words of advice on how to get help from the powers-that-be in Washington and Albany.
You have to keep yelling and screaming, said Brustman.
Gillespie said Trout Unlimited has studied flooding in the Beaverkill watershed for seven years, adding that flooding has increased during that time.
The way weve been dealing with rivers in the past doesnt work, he said. Berms, levies and walls built to keep a river in place actually increase flood damage. . . . They increase the velocity and height of the water.
John Parker took a rather dim view of the issue of trout vs. people.
What we need is a little bit of common sense, he said. Whats more important, the trout or the people who live around the trout? All theyre concerned about is fishermen who come up here for a day. . . . There comes a time when you have to put people first.
Gillespie took exception to that sentiment.
People come first, he replied. The issue is how we deal with an extremely flood-prone area . . . with flashy streams that come up fast, and how do you protect what is the source of a large part of the economy? Its not one or the other.
He said that, since 1951, flood damage in the nation has tripled, adding $4 billion was spent last year on repairing flood damage.
Gillespie said current thinking in the area of preventing flooding (or reducing the impacts) is to get away from the old idea of putting up levies and berms, or bulldozing stream beds.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are starting to realize the old way of dealing with floods doesnt work, he said. This town deserves some kind of federal or state help after the December flood.
Who To Call
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C., Disaster Correspondence Unit: (202) 646-4500.
New York State Emergency Management Office (SEMO) in Albany: (518) 485-1797.
Sullivan County Department of Public Works in Monticello: (845) 794-3000.
Sullivan County Soil & Water Conservation District in Liberty: (845) 292-6552.
American Red Cross in Greater New York in NYC: (877) 733-2767.
American Red Cross of Sullivan County in Mongaup Valley: (845) 583-8340.
U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) a source of possible low-interest loans available to residents of Sullivan County: (800) 659-2955.
Patricia S. Pomeroy, Town of Rockland Supervisor in Livingston Manor: (845) 439-4399 (office).