An appeal Schoharie County sent to Washington, D.C., last week says FEMA’s call to rebuild the County Jail in a high-hazard flood zone is “arbitrary, short-sighted and defies common sense.”
County flood recovery coordinator William Cherry on Friday issued a letter and summary of an appeal contending the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s suggestion the flooded jail be rebuilt where it sits is akin to wasting money.
“There can be no doubt that this building will suffer damage from flooding at some point in the future, and millions more of federal, state and local dollars will be needed to repair the devastation,” he said in the letter dated Jan. 29.
The August 2011 onslaught by Tropical Storm Irene represented the third flooding of the public safety facility off Depot Lane in the village of Schoharie, Cherry said in the letter.
This time, the building took on “seven feet of raging muddy water filled with gasoline, home heating oil, agricultural chemicals, decomposing farm animals and other toxic debris.”
The county’s appeal, developed by Cherry and the county’s consulting firm Simmons Recovery, is being sent to the nation’s capital because regional FEMA officials have rejected the county’s claim that disaster funding should be directed towards relocation, not repairs.
The county’s disaster recovery team tried to convince the federal agency’s local agents that about $7 million in needed repairs and another $7 million in flood protection improvements, a total of $14 million, meets with FEMA’s so-called 50-percent rule: Replace something if repairing it would cost more than 50 percent as much as rebuilding it out of harm’s way.
A new jail, not including engineering and architecture, is to estimated to cost about $18.7 million, not a lot more than the $14 million cost of repairing flood damage at the old jail and preventing damage from the next flood.
The sticking point is that local FEMA representatives say FEMA is responsible for only the first $7 million — for flood repairs — not the second $7 million, for preventing future flood damage. The cost of building flood walls around the county’s jail and other measures required by New York state law should not be counted toward the 50 percent rule, they say.
If FEMA’s cost is only $7 million, that would be less than 50 percent of the replacement cost.
The county’s appeal emphasizes that FEMA has already decided, in an Iowa case, to do exactly what Schoharie County is asking for in the appeal. There, FEMA replaced two buildings damaged at the University of Iowa after the Iowa River jumped its banks in June 2008. Iowa FEMA representatives sought advice from FEMA officials in Washington if floodplain code compliance costs should be included in the 50 percent rule calculation, and were told they should.
That case started an internal debate at FEMA over the 50 percent rule that apparently is still not resolved.
FEMA’s Office of Inspector General opened up an investigation into the decision to replace, rather than repair the Iowa buildings at a cost of $75.4 million.
FEMA Administrator William Craig Fugate in a response dated Aug. 1, 2012, defended the decision and described FEMA’s 50 percent rule as “in need of significant review and revision.”
“[Fugate] says exactly what we’re saying,” Cherry said.
Schoharie County also argues in its appeal that New York state law bans building critical facilities, including jails and major communication centers, within a flood hazard area.
Twenty nine months after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Harvey E. Stoddard Public Safety Facility, no inmates are housed there. Schoharie County pays Albany County to keep its inmates at the Albany County Jail in Colonie, and then FEMA reimburses Schoharie County.
Some administrative personnel have resumed business on the second floor of the building, including the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office.
No time frame exists for resolving the stalemate with FEMA.