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FEMA wants Schoharie County to rebuild jail, not move it

Facility damaged in 2011 flooding

Thursday, August 1, 2013
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— People were scrambling to get out of Schoharie 23 months ago as the flooding Schoharie Creek bore down on the village.

Among those evacuated were more than 40 inmates housed in the county’s public safety facility on Depot Lane, which was flooded and badly damaged.

Despite being flooded, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now suggesting Schoharie County rebuild the Public Safety Facility where it is.

The county plans to fight the decision and officials submitted an appeal to FEMA last week, said Treasurer William Cherry, the county’s flood recovery coordinator.

“I expect us to be vindicated on that appeal, and in the end we’ll have a brand new, newly constructed public safety facility and communications center on higher ground,” Cherry said Thursday.

A spokeswoman at FEMA on Thursday said the agency is expecting the appeal, but federal regulations on the books — specifically the agency’s “50 percent” rule — put funding for a new jail on safer ground out of the question.

The 2011 flooding exposed several weaknesses in the county’s emergency preparations.

The E-911 communications center — those who answer 911 calls — as well as the Emergency Management Office and District Attorney’s Office were all housed in the Depot Lane facility when it was inundated by more than six feet of water.

Making matters worse was Tropical Storm Lee a week later.

The emergency operations center — filled with officials at every level of government working to react to the worst flood to hit the valley in decades — was moved to the Cobleskill Fairgrounds and uprooted from there a week later when the second storm sent the Cobleskill Creek surging into that village.

Cherry said the county’s appeal will focus on the belief that FEMA is not doing the right math.

Cherry said FEMA is estimating the cost to repair the jail building at $7.1 million.

FEMA estimates new construction outside of the flood zone at $18.7 million.

According to FEMA rules, Cherry said, the agency won’t pay to rebuild unless repairs cost at least half of what a new facility would cost.

He suspects protecting taxpayers from too much spending is behind the rule.

“On the surface, that sounds like a logical argument,” Cherry said.

Cherry said the county believes FEMA’s reasoning is flawed because the agency often includes mitigation — measures to protect from future floods — in the price of a job even if it’s just repairs.

Cherry said the county is arguing that the true cost of fixing the current facility, including mitigation measures such as flood walls, should cost $13.2 million — that’s $6.1 million in additional cost for flood protection.

“They forgot to add in the cost of the flood gates,” Cherry said.

The fight to move the jail is not without reservations, he said.

“There’s a lot of us that feel bad about the current public safety facility having to be abandoned. It was a nice structure and it’s still a solid structure,” Cherry said.

But, Cherry said, the public safety facility is sitting in a FEMA-designated flood plain.

FEMA spokeswoman Caitlin Rose Ostomel said damage to the county jail didn’t meet criteria for a destroyed facility.

She said FEMA is reading its rules to mean estimates of the jail’s replacement are the cost to rebuild it in place to the condition it was in prior to the flood.

Ostomel said the county will have two chances to appeal: the current appeal and then another to regional FEMA administration.

U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, in a statement provided via email Thursday, said he’s supporting Schoharie County’s math as it relates to FEMA’s calculations.

“I agree completely that FEMA should be including not only the $7.1 million cost to rebuild the facility on the current site, but also the additional $6 million required for flood mitigation structures and work that is mandated for that site,” Gibson said in the statement.

“That brings the total cost to over $13 million, which is well more than the 50 percent requirement to build a new $18 million facility out of the flood plain danger zone. I fully support the county’s position that FEMA is not following proper procedure with this determination under the Stafford Act and other FEMA guidelines,” Gibson said.

 
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