Regional officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t change their minds and help Schoharie County move its flood-prone jail, so the county intends to appeal directly to Washington, D.C.
The county Board of Supervisors on Friday agreed to carry the fight to the nation’s Capitol in response to a Dec. 5 letter from FEMA rejecting the county’s appeal.
FEMA agreed to pay for repairs to the county jail that was inundated with floodwater in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, but county officials contend it’s a bad idea and sought reconsideration, hoping the agency would instead fund relocation.
The failed appeal centered on FEMA’s “50 percent rule,” according to county Treasurer William Cherry, the county’s flood-recovery coordinator.
FEMA will provide disaster assistance to relocate a flooded facility if it is considered “destroyed” and fixing it costs at least half of what new construction would cost.
The agency agreed to fund renovations at the jail estimated at $7.1 million plus another $6.1 million in upgrades to meet with codes, including flood-protection measures, for a total of $13.2 million.
The cost of a new jail on higher ground is estimated at $18.7 million.
Although Schoharie County argues the entire project cost of $13.2 million fits the 50 percent rule and should prompt FEMA to fund relocation, the agency won’t include the flood-protection measures in its calculation, Cherry said.
The jail has been shut down for more than two years since Tropical Storm Irene inundated the village of Schoharie, sending emergency managers fleeing for higher ground and forcing the evacuation of dozens of prisoners.
The second floor of the facility is now back in operation — housing the Emergency-911 communications center, offices for the district attorney and the sheriff.
“We safely evacuated everybody this time and I have no doubt we can safely evacuate everybody again. The problem is the entire second floor of the public safety facility is actually the heart of our emergency operations,” Cherry said.
The county Emergency Management Office moved its operations to Howes Cave in the wake of the flood, and neither the former nor current emergency management director is willing to move the offices back to the flood zone.
“I think it is totally foolish for FEMA to even consider rebuilding that jail,” said Kevin Neary, the county’s acting emergency management director who retired in 2004 as chief of operations at the New York State Emergency Management Office.
“I think that we should never even consider putting the jail, the 911 center or the emergency operations center back there,” Neary said.
In addition to inmates, Neary said county employees would have to be uprooted in the event of another Irene-like event.
That would require establishing another place to receive 911 calls during the throes of a disaster like the one in 2011.
The evacuation of about 40 inmates during Tropical Storm Irene was followed by a complete shutdown of Emergency-911 communications.
The county moved its disaster command center to the Cobleskill Fairgrounds next to the Cobleskill Creek — and that entire center was evacuated a week later due to Tropical Storm Lee flooding.
Neary said it’s “totally unacceptable” to put the county in the same situation again.
“It is time to move that building to safer ground,” he said.
Cherry said the county has 60 days to get its appeal to Washington.
The new argument won’t focus on the 50 percent rule, but will instead make use of other prohibitions on building in flood zones.
Since 25 percent of the disaster funding is being covered by New York state, Cherry said the appeal will point to state funding restrictions.
“New York state is not allowed to use public funds to rebuild in a flood plain if there is another alternative,” Cherry said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation also frowns on building in flood-prone areas, he said.
“While they might not prohibit the rebuilding of the jail … there’s certainly some prohibitions that would seem to indicate that would not be allowed,” Cherry said.