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Nine months later, Danbury-area awaits storm relief funding

February 8, 2019

More than six years after Hurricane Sandy, Danbury is still receiving federal reimbursement for money it spent in the storm’s aftermath.

Although Danbury-area towns that applied for grants after last May’s macroburst said they don’t expect to wait quite that long, nine months later they have not yet seen any funds.

“Unfortunately, sometimes (the grant) comes real quick and other times it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re getting this now,’” said Paul Estefan, director of civil preparedness for Danbury.

Pat Del Monaco, first selectwoman in New Fairfield, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency told her a new online system should speed up the process. “They expect it to go much more quickly than in past years,” she said.

FEMA has so far paid more than $405,000 to the state for the May storm, which resulted in two deaths and at least $18 million in damage across the area.

None of that has gone to Danbury, Brookfield or New Fairfield. Grants were denied to Litchfield County.

Danbury’s damage has been estimated at almost $4.8 million. New Fairfield is looking at close to $2.5 million in damages, while Brookfield has a $2.8 million claim with FEMA.

Homeowners are also still grappling with the aftermath of the macroburst. Near Candlewood Lake in Brookfield, some still have damage on their properties or have only recently moved back into their repaired houses. The state applied to FEMA for individual assistance, but this request was denied.

The devil is in the details

Dennis Pinkham, a spokesman for FEMA, said it is hard to say when Danbury-area towns should expect their grants. It depends on how accurate the paperwork is or how complicated the projects are, he said.

In the days following the storm, Brookfield First Selectman Steve Dunn said he “naively” hoped the town could receive grant money in August and conduct a town wide clean-up in the fall.

But it took until August for the federal government to declare the storm a “disaster” in Danbury-area towns, meaning they could earn funding.

Brookfield and FEMA officials have met every two weeks for the past three months to review intricate details about the town’s response post-storm.

“The amount of documentation they want is unbelievable,” Dunn said.

When Brookfield provided information on all the trips its fire trucks took and who was on the vehicles, FEMA asked who was driving, sending officials back to collect those details, Dunn said.

Danbury has given FEMA various files, including time cards for employees and information on what equipment the city used and for how long.

“It’s not a ‘Here’s our bill and walk away,’” Estefan said. “We have to literally break it down.”

But all of these details are key to determining how much towns deserve to receive, Pinkham said. The agency does not want to shortchange communities. Nor does it want to provide too much money, only for an audit to reveal years later the town should return some funds, he said.

So far, FEMA has not denied Brookfield any of its $2.8 million claim. The funding is expected to go into the town’s rainy day fund, which the town pulled from to clear debris from public roads and properties in the weeks following the storm.

Brookfield residents had been frustrated the town could not do more to help individuals clean up their properties, but this would have violated FEMA’s rules.

“By law, I can’t walk on anybody’s property,” Dunn said. “If I took one tree, one branch off someone’s property and the FEMA inspectors saw it, FEMA walks. I would lose the whole $2.8 million.”

Still recovering

Ray Murphy, who lives on Old Hemlock Road in Brookfield, had trees crush his car, collapse part of his home and damage his garden. Murphy and his family could not return to their home until Thanksgiving weekend.

And many of his neighbors are still displaced. He said they have had trouble with contractors and their insurance companies, preventing work from getting done.

“We were one of the lucky ones,” Murphy said. “I hear horror stories.”

State Rep. Steve Harding, R-Brookfield, said he spoke with one resident who has been unable to repair her home because her lender will not provide money until the contractor begins the work. But the contractor will not start until he knows he will get paid.

“She had limited resources, limited savings, had a devastating damage to her property and unfortunately could not get the contractor to begin work,” Harding said. “Her problem is unfortunately a problem that many individuals have faced in the community.”

It’s one of the reasons the legislator proposed a bill to require that mortgage companies release to homeowners at least a portion of money they have received from an insurance company for property damage claims.

Another Harding bill would create a fund to provide financial assistance to residents whose properties were damaged in a natural disaster. He said he envisions the fund working similar to the one created for residents, mainly in the eastern part of the state, struggling with crumbling foundations. That money comes from a surcharge on homeowner’s insurance.

Getting no federal aid

In New Milford, some homes are still damaged, but most people have gone through their insurance companies for repairs, said Brian Ohmen, the town’s emergency management director.

“I’m sure there’s still a need,” he said. “Obviously, being almost a year later, no one is ringing my phone off the hook looking for help.”

Initial estimates showed New Milford spent nearly $254,000 to repair damage to public roads and properties, while Bridgewater had about $139,000 in damage and Roxbury had $26,000.

But Litchfield County did not reach the $698,000 threshold FEMA required to qualify for grants. The state’s appeal of the decision was denied in late September.

And few resources were available for residents to help cover the cost of damage.

This left residents to foot expensive bills, often to remove trees from their properties. Insurance companies usually only covered those costs if the trees fell on homes.

“(With) the number of trees and the size of the trees that came down, many people can’t afford to clean them up all at once,” Del Monaco said. “They’re still sitting in their yards.”

A third Harding bill would require insurance companies to cover the cost to remove trees from homeowners’ properties, not just those that touched homes.

Murphy said it cost him about $10,000 to remove the trees in his yard.

Dunn said he knows one resident who spent $40,000 to clear trees, another who spent $24,000 and another who spent $18,000.

“This is all out of pocket,” he said. “We have a lot of residents who do not have those resources.”

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