February 29, 2024

Healey-proposed fund could fill state’s natural-disaster gap  – Sentinel and Enterprise

As Leominster continues to wait for federal disaster funds from September’s flood, communities in the future may have more luck if Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed permanent “Disaster Relief Resiliency Fund’’ makes it through the upcoming fiscal year’s budget process. (Staff Photo Chris Christo/Boston Herald)

Being without a state-funded disaster safety net – the case in Massachusetts – leaves individuals, businesses and municipalities relying on the federal government to provide aid for which they might not qualify.

But now there’s word that a new state fund to help with recovering from increasingly severe natural calamities could soon be created.

After floods hammered cities and towns – in particular Leominster – across the state in the summer, fall, and now winter, some state politicians have rallied behind a new funding mechanism that could help communities recover easier and faster, bypassing the red tape that usually accompanies federal aid.

Currently, cities and towns rely on federal dollars and case-by-case supplemental state appropriations, funds that are often difficult and time-consuming to acquire.

That’s certainly the situation in Leominster’s case.

While that Twin City has seemingly recovered from the Sept. 11 deluged-caused flash flooding that washed away railroad bridges, sidewalks, yards, and flooded homes and businesses, local officials said federal disaster aid is still required to put the community fully back on its feet again.

Three months after the fact, Mayor Dean Mazzarella announced that the city had submitted all the necessary aid paperwork to the state, which filed a request for a federal disaster declaration.

The petition included requests for individual assistance for homeowners and businesses, as well as funding to repair the city’s infrastructure and funds for the state Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to pay for repairs to the commuter rail servicing Leominster.

“This has been one of the most complex processes the city has undertaken during my time as Mayor,” Mazzarella told the Sentinel & Enterprise.

He was alluding to the painstaking ordeal of gathering and documenting information and evidence needed for the declaration. Individual businesses and homeowners filed 1,400 damage claims. City and private engineers hired by Leominster identified $30 million needed to repair damage to 75 damaged public sites.

The Department of Transportation’s expenses came to $6 million and the MBTA submitted an estimate of $390,000 for repairs to the commuter rail serving the city.

The federal government could approve all or part of the disaster declaration. It could opt for one-time grants or low-interest loans to individuals or only approve funding for public infrastructure repairs.

However, that declaration’s fate remains in bureaucratic limbo.

That all could be avoided if Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed permanent “Disaster Relief Resiliency Fund’’ makes it through the upcoming fiscal year’s budget process.

The initiative, included in House Bill 2, would be funded by allocating 10% of annual excess capital gains receipts, according to the governor’s office.

“Our cities and towns are deeply impacted by climate change already,’’ Healey said in her State of the Commonwealth speech in mid-January. “We saw it in the floods last summer and this week.’’

She said she wants the commonwealth to “be ready when help is needed.’’

Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reported, is one of only four states that doesn’t already have some sort of dedicated disaster recovery fund, according to a 2020 Pew Charitable Trusts report.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has little ability to provide resources after disasters if the damage doesn’t reach certain benchmarks to qualify for federal aid.

Leominster, for example, where hundreds of homes were damaged and residents were forced to evacuate amid intense flash floods in September, could end up falling below that federal emergency assistance threshold.

Though private fundraising efforts certainly helped – the United Way of North Central Massachusetts’ Leominster Flood Relief Fund raised more $300,000 – Leominster’s needs far exceed what a nonprofit can generate.

In the meantime, MEMA does not have adequate funds to provide financial assistance to cities, towns, or people after a storm, an agency spokesperson said.

That leaves communities struggling to recover from what MEMA director Dawn Brantley has called “gap disasters’’ – financially devastating storms for municipalities, but ones that weren’t quite expensive enough to qualify for federal assistance.

Brantley told lawmakers in a January Senate committee hearing that though the number of times per year that MEMA has activated its state emergency operation center has remained relatively consistent, the number of times it has activated a regional emergency operation center has increased more than 90% over the past decade.

Last year, regional emergency operation centers were activated more than 150 times. That shows how “gap disasters,’’ which are more localized, are hitting the state especially hard, she said.

Since Leominster might fail to meet federal guidelines for disaster aid, it behooves the state to create a funding mechanism that meets that need.

The governor’s proposal would align Massachusetts with most other states in that regard.

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