Can We Afford to Play Politics with Disaster Relief?

My heart goes out to my neighbors and friends in Fernville and the rest of the area that were hit hardest by this disaster.  I have witnessed an amazing response by so many individuals and organizations.  I’m proud to be a member of a community that is willing to help others in tough times.  It’s these values and principals that bind a community like ours together.I was amazed to see the initial clean up effort that occurred in Fernville soon after the flood — people and machinery working to clear debris, the American Red Cross offering food and water, meals being served in a food pavilion set up in the park, door-to-door delivery of cleaning supplies, and neighbors helping neighbors.  All of it was truly inspiring.  But now that destroyed homes are officially off-limits and owners are not allowed to enter them, a “wait and see” attitude has set in.  It is a shame to see the homes along Drinker Street in Fernville sit derelict.

As I have been contemplating the possible scenarios regarding destroyed homes, I started to think about the subject in relation to national politics.  And what I came up with is that I don’t know how people will be able to afford the demolition of their destroyed homes and other associated costs without assistance.  My assumption is that most people in flooded areas are going to struggle to afford it.  And specifically, I’m concerned about exactly who is going to pay for demolishing the property and making the land clean and safe again.

With budgets being cut on the federal and state levels, I fear that our local government is eventually going to be forced to pick up the tab.  It was just a few weeks ago that Congress (at the last second) appropriated funds to keep FEMA afloat.  Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) has argued that equal cuts need to be made elsewhere before allocating more funds to programs like FEMA.  Fortunately, for our local flood victims collecting FEMA monies, the argument failed to persuade lawmakers.  A legislative gridlock on this issue could have had a very close-up and personal effect on our community.

But if the political trend continues to slash mandatory spending in our federal programs such as aid to flood victims, then we may be faced with shifting this burden to state and local government. Earlier this year, many Republicans wanted to slash next year’s FEMA budget by 55%.  We may need to find revenue elsewhere, or be forced to raise local taxes, to aid in current and future recovery efforts if the responsibility is left to local government.

Just look at how much Bloomsburg spent on the curb side removal of trash.  Estimates put the figure at several hundred thousand dollars. The numbers add up quickly and it is an overwhelming burden to put on a small community like ours.

This is the reason we have federal and state assistance.  I strongly believe the federal and state emergency funding systems need to stay in place. Keep in mind, if we don’t have FEMA or PEMA, there won’t be any “buy outs.”

That being said, not all of the money needed is coming from the government.  Donations have been pouring in from all over.  First Columbia Bank donated $100,000 to flood relief.  Many more business have also contributed.  Individuals like former resident Gary Hock have contributed.  Gary donated $100,000 of his own money to the relief effort.

But is it smart or responsible to rely on the generosity of individuals to get us out of this mess?  I have profound appreciation and admiration for those contributing their time and money to the relief effort.   But can we expect these individuals and businesses to donate money to the next disaster?  My hope is that our community, with help from our state and federal governments, will be able to help those with destroyed homes sooner rather than later.

Have an opinion on a local subject?  Email us your opinion pieces and let the conversation begin.

The Unknowns of Condemned Homes in Fernville

In Fernville and all over our area, we are facing a steep learning curve in order to understand the process of home condemnation after the flooding damage.   Tri-County COG IBC Inspection Service (Tri County Council of Government, International Building Code) is the third-party agency that is legally responsible for inspecting flood damaged homes for the Commonwealth here in Columbia County.  They cover Fernville and the 22 other municipalities surrounding Bloomsburg.  The town of Bloomsburg has their own inspectors.

Stephen G. Bielskie, Sr. is the person from Tri-County COG IBC whose duty it is to inspect homes and report damage levels back to the municipality who will then condemn the homes if they are found to be unsafe for habitation.  Municipalities provide a list of homes to inspect and he is responsible for conducting the inspections and sending copies of the reports back to the local governments.  There are several levels of damage and it is important to understand the differences between each.

According to Mr. Bielskie, homes can be labeled:

  • Damaged (impacted but still able to be lived in)
  • Condemned (impacted and unable to be lived in until repairs are made)
  • Condemned and Destroyed (impacted, unable to be lived in, and not able to be repaired)

A home that is condemned is uninhabitable, but it can be repaired and re-inhabited. However, homes that are condemned and labeled “destroyed” generally must be demolished.

There are several reasons a home might be condemned.  Most of the homes that have been condemned after the flooding have been designated as such for health and structural reasons. Owners must make corrections to the homes in order to make them clean, safe, and livable. Any structural damage must be repaired before owners can move back in.  Some of the condemned homes have also been labeled “destroyed.”  In these cases, owners may have no other choice but to demolish their homes.  In Mr. Bielskie’s words, “The only good news right now is that the number of condemned homes is starting to come down, as owners make repairs and get rid of mold.”

There is, however, still a lot of ambiguity as to what happens to condemned properties — especially the destroyed ones.  Will FEMA initiate buy-outs? Do the owners have a responsibility to demolish the structure and make the land clean and safe?  Ideally individuals would have the liberty to do what they see fit with the property.  However, this isn’t always in the best interest of the public especially if the current condition of the property puts the public safety and health at risk.  If it is determined that public health is at risk, the local, state or federal government (after providing just compensation) can take possession via eminent domain.  This shifts responsibility of the property away from the individual and on to the government.

But with the future of compensation funding uncertain in these economic times, we are presented with more unknowns.  Even if disaster relief funding remains at current levels, there still may be a rough ride ahead.  After previous historic flooding in Hemlock Township, the municipality was required to pay half of the compensation for homes destroyed in order to get any federal funding.  It would be very difficult for the municipality to pay half of the amount for homes now declared destroyed from the recent flooding.  And further complicating the matter is the fact that no one seems certain as to how many homes are actually considered destroyed in Fernville and beyond.  The township is currently working on guidelines with the other Emergency Management Agencies (PEMA, FEMA, local EMA) to deal with the severely damaged homes.

Without immediate action our public health may also be at risk.  Many condemned homes have had their power turned off, meters removed, and their water and sewer lines cut.  Without the use of these utilities, it will be very difficult to correct flood related problems now affecting these properties.  If you don’t have the furnace, sump pump, dehumidifiers, fans, and water for cleaning up, mold and other problems are only going to multiply.  If the owners are unable or unwilling to return their properties to a safe, clean, and livable state, then this leaves neighbors and local government to deal with the fallout.  Potential infestation of rodents and bugs, the spread of mold, and a host of other health related problems are of real concern.

The tight-knit and resilient community of Fernville has seen flooding before but this time it may be a game changer.  According to supervisors, one of the ideas on the table is to require owners to elevate homes above flood level or move them entirely if flood damage has exceeded 50% of the home’s market value.  The only other option would be to demolish the property.  It is entirely unknown whether home owners could afford or would even be willing to do that.  But one thing is for certain— the landscape is going to change along Drinker Street.  In Mr. Bielskie’s words, “People might have to raise up their houses, move them, or take them down.  Personally, I think those houses with repetitive damage need to be bought out by FEMA.  But there are no real answers from anyone right now.”

This is an ongoing discussion and we can all continue to help one another figure out the answers. Please comment below and let’s get a discussion going that takes us in a positive direction.

Mike Fritz for The Bloomsburg Daily

Photo Credit,  Derek Gittler