The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay Schoharie County to design a new Blenheim Covered Bridge to replace the one destroyed by tropical storm Irene.
But the county’s flood recovery coordinator said approval for architectural and engineering funding doesn’t reflect a complete victory — a sentiment that’s drawn fire from Blenheim residents who view the bridge as a focal point in the town’s post-disaster recovery.
Recovery coordinator and County Treasurer William Cherry, during his monthly recovery update to the county’s Board of Supervisors on Friday, distributed a string of e-mails showing FEMA is agreeing to pay for the design work but not guaranteeing final approval for any construction.
“It is understood that the [architecture and engineering] funding is being made available to fund the preliminary design of a replacement structure of the same size, use and function at the original location and on the existing piers,” FEMA representative Larry O’Reilly said in an e-mail to Cherry dated Jan. 22.
“It is further understood that review and acceptance of such design by all relevant state authorities is required before further FEMA approvals are provided.”
The county last summer rejected a $1.8 million offer from FEMA to pay for a “gazebo” to replace a meeting place, well short of the goal of building a replica using pieces of the old bridge. Volunteers and county workers have gathered a variety of hardware and timbers from the Schoharie Creek downstream from where the 210-foot covered bridge stood in North Blenheim.
Built of wood in 1855, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Cherry in December said a replica bridge would cost roughly $8.7 million but he wasn’t optimistic a complete rebuild would meet with regulatory approval.
Cherry has said agencies such as the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, along with the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, are unlikely to permit the construction.
The Blenheim Covered Bridge sat upstream of the state Route 30 bridge.
The old wooden bridge was smashed against the modern concrete and steel bridge when it was washed away by the Schoharie Creek in August 2011.
The risk of another such calamity, Cherry has said, might dissuade officials from approving construction of a replacement. And the site itself is clearly in a flood hazard area, in which regulators typically discourage or ban construction.
The county is using that same sentiment, expressed explicitly by state officials, in defense of its argument FEMA should help pay for an all-new public safety facility on high ground. The jail building was inundated by Irene but FEMA is suggesting it be rebuilt where it is.
Cherry expressed those thoughts in December, and these views are seen as insufficient and obstructive, Blenheim Long Term Recovery committee member Gail Shaffer of Blenheim said Monday.
“For them to bad mouth it in the press, it’s just totally unacceptable,” she said. “It’s not just they’re pessimistic about it. In our view they’ve been obstructive of it.”
Shaffer, a former New York secretary of state, said she believes the town of Blenheim’s plight has been given little attention by the county and Cherry.
“Every other project that they’ve submitted to FEMA has been fully supported. If this was in Cobleskill or in Schoharie, you can believe that they would be supporting this vigorously,” she said.
She said she’s hearing optimism, not pessimism, on the part of the state.
“The vibrations that we’ve had, the inklings that we’ve had, is most of the state agencies are quite enthusiastic,” Shaffer said.
Before it was destroyed, the Blenheim Covered Bridge was one of only two New York bridges listed as National Historic Landmarks. The Brooklyn Bridge is the other.
Cherry said neither he nor the county’s consulting firm are ignoring Blenheim — and he recalled last summer when FEMA initially said the county would get “zero” for the bridge because it was considered an artifact.
“I know how dear the Blenheim Covered bridge was to them, just as it was to all of us in Schoharie County,” he said.
“I’m sorry that Hurricane Irene happened. We all lost a lot in that event,” said Cherry, who lived on Main Street in the village of Schoharie until the flooding ruined his home and his insurer balked at covering repairs.
He said FEMA’s approval of repair funding for bridges in Vermont and other spots in New England is due not to the tenacity with which funding was sought but due to the bridges themselves.
The other covered bridges, Cherry said, actually carried vehicles “from point A to point B.”
The Blenheim Covered Bridge stopped carrying traffic decades ago, leading to the argument that the bridge could be seen as a community gathering place and talk of eligibility for funding to buy a “gazebolike” structure as replacement project.
Residents in the southern Schoharie County town have made the iconic structure a focal point of post-flood recovery efforts, which also include plans to develop a park and walking trail along the creek and moving critical town buildings out of the reach of floods.
“The centerpiece of the whole recovery plan for our community is that bridge,” Shaffer said.
She said FEMA’s decision to pay for engineering and design is welcome news. “We’re very gratified that FEMA’s reconsidering our appeal and showing a more-positive attitude. We do have something here to celebrate,” she said. “We’re going to rebuild it and it’s going to benefit the entire county and the region, not just the town of Blenheim. We need the full cooperation of the county government.”
Cherry said FEMA’s decision to help is great news, despite the hurdles that remain in the way.
“FEMA has finally, begrudgingly agreed to fund the architecture and engineering costs to design the replica bridge across the stream,” Cherry said.
“That’s a huge step forward because FEMA has been, behind the scenes, saying all along that they will not pay to replace that bridge.”
Reach Gazette reporter Edward Munger Jr. at 843-2856 or email@example.com.