The Waitsfield Select Board will provide funding to staff Hurricane Irene Flood Relief headquarters for the next two weeks.
The board is also continuing its work with the owners of Bridge Street properties and businesses to determine what is next in terms of rebuilding, the river and the future.
The board met on Monday, September 12, at The Valley Players Theater to discuss the future of the flood relief efforts and Bridge Street cleanup and repair, as well as the covered bridge status. (The Waitsfield covered bridge will remain closed for at least two months; see story on Page 11).
Betsy Jondro, Eve Silverman and Caretia Fernandez who have been staffing the relief center (along with other volunteers) came to the select board this week to provide an overview of current relief efforts and to request that the board agree to staff two temporary positions at the center.
They explained that they are working in three different areas: the immediate need for cleanup and relief such as places to live; what happens next in terms of construction and getting ready for winter and river cleanup; and what happens after that for the relief center.
Currently volunteers are staffing the relief center seven days a week, organizing events and matching volunteers with the needs of flood victims. They are logging the volunteer hours, which will be necessary for the town to be compensated by FEMA. What is needed now, Silverman told the board, is a manager and a coordinator who can take over for the volunteers who have been managing the relief center as volunteers.
Board members asked about where the requests for help are coming from and were told that about 35 to 40 percent of the need is coming from Waitsfield and the rest of it was from Moretown and the towns to the south—Granville, Hancock and Rochester.
The board approved funding 94 hours a week and up to $8,400 for one month, with funds available retroactive to August 28 and through September 28. Board member Paul Hartshorn questioned the hourly pay rates of $25 and $20 for the paid positions, asking whether it was appropriate to pay these people more than the town’s road crew employees who are on duty all year round.
Others on the board noted that these are short-term non-salaried contractor positions and the people hired will receive no benefits. The board also discussed with the three relief volunteers present the need to approach neighboring towns for financial contributions and to keep meticulous records for federal disaster funding—which does cover the type of temporary positions the relief center will have.
“There has been discussion within the relief group about who should we be serving and how far into the process should we go. In The Valley, a lot of the cleanup has been completed. We have a concern that in the second phase—reconstruction—people are going to need volunteer support to get their homes and buildings buttoned up before winter. We are wondering if there is a need for a roving general contractor to help flood victims with these small finish-type projects. We’re wondering if that position should be partially funded. We are also concerned that people without flood insurance may not be able to rebuild without some volunteer labor,” Silverman said.
“And we’re not serving a lot of people who haven’t yet cleaned up. There are a lot of other towns without the organization resources that we have here and people need help. They don’t have a system. How long should we keep helping—or should we just give them this template?” she asked.
“If our mission includes only Valley towns, we’re into the second phase. But we can handle phase one in neighboring towns while handling phase two here,” she added.
After affirming that the relief center should continue its work and voting to provide the short- term funding, the board discussed the future of the Green Cup Restaurant on Bridge Street with owner Jason Gulisano.
Gulisano told the board that his building was host to nine tenants and had two apartments on the second floor and his restaurant on the first floor. He said that the decision on what to do next has a lot to do with other issues such as the fate of the Birke Photography Studio that was lifted off its foundation and settled next to the Green Cup building. He said he can’t go forward until he knows what the town can and will do in terms of the river and what will happen to the Birke building.
Board chair Kate Williams told Gulisano, that the town’s flood mitigation strategy is underway but not complete. Board member Bill Parker said that the state’s policy on towns working in state rivers was changing.
“It’s a pendulum. It used to be, do whatever you want to, but don’t touch the river. There are forces at play here, a new model and it’s changing. We need to encourage the state to help us—particularly if we’re going to have a 500-year flood every 13 years,” Parker said.
“What can we do in the short term to help you? Are there actions that we can take? Is there anything we can do to help you with the hard decisions you have to make?” Williams asked Gulisano.
“There are so many different scenarios for me. To feel protected as a property owner and a business owner, to take my debt and double it—that is not scaring me to the point of moving somewhere else in the country—if I’m going to be in my building for the next 15 to 20 years, I am all for it. It is already mid-September and the river dredging alone is more work than anyone could ask to be completed before winter,” he replied.
“The reality of it is that to rebuild I need to be certain about the bridge, the road work and the future of the Birke building. I need to know whether its owner wants to rebuild. Without her I lose the buffer between my building and the river. What about the sink hole where her building was? Once her building is moved my land is now the riverfront. What is the future plan for preventing the river from eating 12 feet of property?” Gulisano asked.
“It’s a lot to ask for in sixth months at the state, town and local level. Are we going to have people to do all that work? My heart is here, but what we’re faced with as a whole state is some serious challenges,” he added.
The select board will host a special meeting next Monday, September 19, at 7 p.m. at the Valley Players Theater to discuss cleanup and rebuilding efforts, river remediation plans and to hear from community members about flood issues as well as the future of the covered bridge and other topics.