State asks FEMA for extension
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | July 06,2013
MONTPELIER — With nearly 200 Vermonters still struggling to recover from Tropical Storm Irene, state officials are asking FEMA to extend a federal grant aimed at getting those households back to pre-flood conditions.
Vermont is among the first states to avail itself of FEMA’s new disaster case management grant program. State officials credit the $2.8 million allocation with supplying the human-resources infrastructure needed to help victims bounce back from 2011 floods. But they say the looming Aug. 31 expiration will come before all of the families have been made whole.
Bob Constantino, an employee at the Department for Children and Families who has since late 2011 served as director of the disaster case management program, estimates that by the end of August, close to 100 flood survivors still will be experiencing unmet needs.
“The fact is we’re stretched for resources, and there are no logical agencies to take over these cases,” Constantino says.
The 90-day extension, Constantino says, would give the disaster case management program the cushion it needs to close out all but a few of the more than 700 cases it opened in the wake of Irene. Constantino says the no-cost extension — Vermont has enough unspent grant money remaining to fund a pared-down version of the program through Nov. 30 — looks to be poised for approval by FEMA.
“Which for us is great, because all this rain has definitely complicated construction schedules, and would get us through fall to get everything done,” Constantino says.
Introduced in an Alabama tornado recovery mission in 2011, the disaster case management grants mark the first time FEMA has played a financial role in helping survivors navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth though which resources are ultimately accessed.
In Vermont, the grant is funneled through the Agency of Human Services, and has funded 11 case managers at three community-action centers serving seven counties. Those 11 grant-funded employees — staffed by Central Vermont Community Action Council, Southeastern Vermont Community Action and BROC of Bennington and Rutland counties — spearheaded recovery plans for the individual cases to which they were assigned.
“This sort of case management has been going on for awhile, but FEMA was never doing it like it is now,” Constantino says. “It was done by the Methodists, (nongovernmental organizations), other state-based groups or the Red Cross. But this is the first time we’ve had anything like this.”
The case managers served as a conduit between flood survivors and the raft of state, federal, municipal, nonprofit and charitable groups from which they might be eligible for aid.
“It can be a small or a large need. The test is whether it was Irene-related,” Constantino says.
A lot of the cases were closed out quickly and early, and without needing to secure financial resources.
“Maybe someone had a front porch washed away, or had some flooding and needed their basement mucked out,” Constantino says. “And a lot of those early projects were done by volunteers.”
It’s the more severe cases that persist now, according to Constantino, who says many of the remaining clients are tapping funds of last resort — like community development block grant money or Vermont disaster relief funds — to make homes habitable.
Lynn Boyle, a field services director at the Agency of Human Services and member of the Upper Valley Strong long-term recovery committee, says the grant-funded case managers have played a crucial role in recovery missions.
“I think they identified the need that was out there,” Boyle says. “The work the case managers did sort of translated into the community being able to respond to the needs.”
Boyle said the check-ins from the boots-on-the-ground case managers also helped connect volunteers on the long-term recovery committee connected to flood victims they hadn’t necessarily ever seen or spoken to.
“They were really able to keep volunteers abreast of the work that was happening, which I think kept volunteers interested and committed,” Boyle says.
If the extension comes through, she says she expects her committee will have resolved all but three or four cases by the end of November.
“And we’ll be able to transfer those to NeighborWorks,” Boyle says.
The grant program will begin to ramp down considerably after August; funding will be discontinued for all but four case managers. Constantino says he thinks the disaster case management grant has proven a useful model for disaster recovery. An evaluation of the program conducted by an outside consultant, Constantino says, will soon provide greater insights into what worked and what didn’t.
“It’s just a puzzle, where you figure out all the different needs, and then figure out where the resources are that can address them,” Constantino says. “And the case manager helps the survivor put all those pieces together.”