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Boulder, Larimer Counties Could Be Ineligible for More than $60M in Flood Recovery Funding

November 15, 2018

Workers from Lawrence Construction put up concrete barriers in Fourmile Canyon on Nov. 9. Flood-recovery work in Fourmile, along with Geer and James canyons in Boulder County and Big Thompson Canyon in Larimer County, would have been impossible to complete without variances to local construction codes and standards. Those variances, however, have put the counties at risk of being ineligible for more than $60 million in reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When Boulder County in March received a determination from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that $46,000-worth of recovery work from the 2013 flood would be ineligible for reimbursement, the amount wasn’t startling.

But the reason FEMA rejected the funding set off alarms in county offices.

FEMA, the agency that assists with disaster-recovery funding across the country, told Boulder County officials that a rebuilt portion of Geer Canyon Road damaged in the 2013 flood wouldn’t be funded because the county didn’t uniformly apply local construction codes and standards to the project.

Larimer County this spring also discovered FEMA had the same issue with its flood recovery work on County Road 44H, also known as Buckhorn Road.

If applied to 14 pending reimbursement applications, some of which entail multiple construction projects, the reasoning behind FEMA’s initial decisions could put Boulder County on the hook for $37 million it thought would come from the feds, according to Boulder County Commissioners’ Deputy Michelle Krezek.

FEMA is currently obligated to pay $60 million toward those projects — which have cost a total of $111 million — but the county would receive only slightly more than a third of what it believed FEMA would pay if the agency’s recent interpretations of reimbursement rules persist, figures shared by Krezek show.

“They told us basically during (Geer Canyon’s funding denial) that this same issue was going to be found in everything else,” Krezek said.

Three flood-recovery projects for which Larimer County is seeking reimbursement — County Roads 44H and 47, and six Big Thompson Canyon bridges, totaling as much as $29 million — might not receive FEMA assistance, either, if the agency’s logic continues to be applied, Larimer County Director of Emergency Management Lori Hodges said.

Additionally, it might not be just those three Larimer projects that lose out on federal assistance.

“If the interpretation holds, all flood projects could be at risk that are currently already constructed and in closeout where reimbursement is still pending,” Hodges said.

Larimer County suffered approximately $110 million in damages from the 2013 flood, Hodges said.

As of August, about $486 million had been spent on disaster recovery across Boulder County .

″(FEMA) Region 8 Public Assistance leadership expressed concern to Boulder County, on numerous occasions, about their recovery plan, including the eligibility concerns of their local codes and standards,” FEMA Region 8 spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said.

“FEMA advised Boulder County to provide proposed ‘scopes of work’ prior to construction to ensure eligibility in advance. Boulder County proceeded with construction at their own discretion without an eligibility determination. There are cases where scopes of work for eligibility and environmental and historic preservation compliance reviews have yet to be submitted, even though construction work is underway and, in some instances, was completed several years ago,” Kimbrough said, adding FEMA has determined some projects ineligible for funding for reasons other than the codes and standards discrepancies.

But officials from each county insist it would have been impossible to rebuild the roads and bridges in Geer, James, Fourmile and Big Thompson canyons, as well as in other mountainous stretches, and have them be used safely without granting some variances to the codes and standards the local governments use for such construction projects.

Variances — such as shrunken road shoulders from what codes and standards normally require — were needed because of the terrain and the limited space within the canyons where reconstruction took place.

“This flood disaster was a very unique disaster, and the size of it was very unique. I think part of the issue with this is we’re rebuilding roads and bridges in mountain canyons. You can’t have one set of standards and one code that works because the topography is so different,” Krezek said.

Boulder County has appealed five FEMA determinations that have ruled $12.3 million-worth of work ineligible for reimbursement in various stages of the agency’s review process.

An initial FEMA determination for work on Fourmile Canyon, Gold Run and Wagon Wheel Gap roads is expected to be made next month. Boulder County anticipates FEMA will withhold $22.1 million of the $25.7 million expected for the projects, which have an estimated total cost of $54.1 million. It is the most expensive group of projects Boulder County expects FEMA to decline to fund.

However, a potential fix could be in the works for the issue preventing Boulder and Larimer counties from receiving their expected FEMA assistance.

A federal law passed in early October aims to amend the way a FEMA rule known as the Stafford Act is interpreted regarding the use of local building codes and standards on recovery projects.

A group of Colorado congressmen on Oct. 31 wrote a letter to FEMA urging the implementation of the new rules, which the lawmakers believe provide more flexibility to the agency when considering funding projects that don’t exactly conform to building codes and standards.

“We can’t blast into the mountain to add more space when the code or standard says we need that,” Larimer County’s Hodges said.

Matt Jones, Longmont’s statehouse senator and a Boulder County commissioner-elect, echoed the congressional delegation in his own letter to FEMA.

“Boulder County repaired these roads in good faith and it is unacceptable that FEMA might not reimburse the county for the millions they’ve spent fixing flood-damaged roads,” Jones stated in a news release. “Not reimbursing Boulder County would be very detrimental to the budget and inhibit the county’s ability to provide critical services to thousands of residents.”

Kimbrough expects the FEMA Region 8 office in the next several weeks will receive initial guidance as to how the new law, known as the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, will apply to the Stafford Act. But there is no time frame for when the agency will know what impact the changes will have for Boulder and Larimer counties, she said.

“What I hope for ... is that these things are eligible, so we can stop spending so much staff time and resources going back and forth with these appeals,” Krezek said.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .

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