After rejecting help altogether, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now agreeing to give Schoharie County disaster funding for the Blenheim covered bridge that was lost in Tropical Storm Irene.
Though the county’s victory in its appeal is seen by some as a win, the decision on how to proceed likely will lead to controversy.
According to Treasurer William Cherry, the county’s flood recovery coordinator, FEMA’s decision could mean between $1.3 million and $1.7 million in compensation for the county’s loss of the 156-year-old icon that was considered the longest single-span wooden bridge in the world before the flood tore it apart.
But Cherry’s interpretation of FEMA’s ruling is that the agency will pay for a replica that can’t be placed over the Schoharie Creek.
Blehheim wants the bridge rebuilt where it was.
The development sets up a decision on the part of the county: file another appeal and risk losing out on funding or build a replica of the bridge somewhere else.
built in 1855
Built in 1855, the 210-foot-long bridge was a National Historic Landmark listed on the Register of Historic Places in 1966.
It was among more than two dozen bridges and roads and 30 buildings destroyed by floodwater in late August of 2011, and residents in the town of Blenheim placed its replacement high on their list of post-flood recovery efforts.
Schoharie County submitted an appeal last year after FEMA determined the bridge, located over the Schoharie Creek just upstream of the state Route 30 bridge in Blenheim, wasn’t eligible for funding.
The bridge hasn’t carried any traffic for decades, but was used instead as a gathering place where the town hosted an annual Art Walk.
It also served as a nice spot to take photos within the embrace of the Schoharie Valley’s hills.
FEMA’s initial determination described the bridge as a historical artifact, similar to a painting or vase.
But the agency reconsidered during the appeal process and acknowledged that the bridge served as a community gathering place.
“They won’t pay to build a replacement bridge, but what they will do is pay to build a ‘gazebo-like structure,’ ” Cherry said.
county: 3 options
Cherry said this leaves the county with three possible paths. One is to build a replica of the bridge on higher ground, the other is to request an “alternative project” and accept a 10 percent reduction in FEMA funding, the other is to file an appeal.
Cherry said he will not recommend the appeal because he’s concerned it would open the entire case up again and it could lead to rejection of any help.
“It puts the $1.7 million severely at risk,” Cherry said.
Cherry said it’s clear, however, that “There’s people in Blenheim who disagree.”
“The truth is the Blenheim bridge is gone. It was destroyed and demolished in that flood. It’s just gone and nothing’s going to bring that particular structure back,” he said.
Among those who disagree are Blenheim Supervisor Robert Mann Jr., who said his interpretation of FEMA’s decision diverges from Cherry’s.
Blenheim: Put it back
Mann said he doesn’t see any direct exclusion in FEMA’s determination that would prevent putting the bridge back where it was.
He said FEMA is likening the Blenheim covered bridge to a pier — and piers have been covered by disaster funding the past.
“We should be allowed to put a covered pier back where it was,” Mann said.
He said some might question how wise it would be to put a bridge back over the same creek that smashed it to smithereens.
But FEMA also provides mitigation money when helping to replace property. So Mann questions why the county can’t simply devise a project that would raise the bridge above flooding levels.
“I think that should be our proposal to FEMA as to what we want to do. And the whole community feels that way,” Mann said.
FEMA spokeswoman Caitlin Rose Ostomel said one key factor in FEMA’s decision is the role damaged structures play in communities.
In this case, the Blenheim covered bridge wasn’t carrying traffic over the Schoharie Creek, so it’s being considered a community gathering site.
Cherry said the county’s Board of Supervisors has two months to decide on whether to file a second appeal on coverage for the bridge.