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Exhausted Floodplain Homeowners Still in Limbo

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Katie Swick in her Elm Street home shortly after the 2023 flood. Photo by John Lazenby.
A year after the July 2023 flood hit central Vermont, Montpelier homeowners of substantially damaged properties still don’t know where to turn or what’s next. 

Buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may take another 15 months (or more), according to local officials, and the long, complicated process, expenses, and uncertainty continue to stress those stuck with destroyed homes.

“The flood isn’t what’s been traumatizing,” said Lisa Edson Neveau, of 195 State Street. “It’s everything since then. We still haven’t been able to move forward. We’re trapped between the city, state, SBA, mortgage owners. The whole thing is nuts.”

Edson Neveau is one of four Montpelier homeowners applying for a buyout from FEMA, although her preference is to stay in her home and elevate it above flood levels. She is on what Joshua Jerome, Montpelier’s community and economic development specialist, calls a “dual track,” exploring both a buyout and elevation.

Buyouts are complicated. According to FEMA’s website, a buyout “is not a simple process and requires agreement by your local government officials, the state, and FEMA. It is important to note that many flooded properties don’t qualify for a buyout, funding is limited, and requests for funding may exceed available resources.”

The website also notes that buyouts are a “lengthy process.” Once a buyout is complete and the homeowner has been paid “market rate” for their home, the city is deeded the property and must raze any structures and keep the area as green space in perpetuity. All of this involves multiple steps, from getting city council approval to city staff working with homeowners on the applications, sending those to Vermont Emergency Management (VEM) for review, then on to FEMA.

And that’s just the application process.

“The best-case scenario that we were told by VEM would be that FEMA might take nine to 15 months for review,” Jerome said. “Sometimes they can take longer … during Irene we saw buyouts take much longer than that nine-to-15-month timeline.”

If Jerome’s understanding of the timeline plays out, Ed Haggett, Mary Zentara, Katie Swick, and Lisa Edson Neveau will continue to live in limbo for possibly another year, and they may not receive the funds for some time after that. In the meantime, three of them are paying to live elsewhere even as they pay mortgages, homeowners insurance, and — the irony is lost on none of them — FEMA-based flood insurance. And one — Edson Neveau — is still living in her flood-damaged home with her two teen sons, unable to make repairs until she knows whether or not she can elevate the house.

Three of the homeowners — Swick, Edson Neveau, and Zentara — are single parents who supplemented their incomes by renting out parts of their homes. They have all lost that income. Haggett is a retiree who has been living in his daughter’s Barre house, in the den. All four, in separate interviews with The Bridge, talked about the toll the ordeal continues to take on them.

“It’s been a real physical and mental drain. It’s awful,” Haggett said. “My former life is gone. My sense of being self-reliant; my sense of being not a burden; my sense of being comfortable living alone; my sense of purpose …. I felt real accomplishment in my life. I don’t have that anymore. I have nothing anymore.”

Mary Zentara. Photo by Terry Allen.

Mary Zentara, State St.

“A long haul with miles to go.”

Before the flood destroyed Mary Zentara’s State Street home, she was training to provide mental health assistance to victims of disasters, even as she worked as a special educator.

Today, a year after her own disaster trauma, Zentara said she is “on deck to be deployed” to the next disaster through Capacity Path, a national group that offers trauma-informed mental health assistance in disasters and emergencies.

Zentara said she’ll be providing “mental health first aid.”

“A lot of what we will be doing is co-regulating nervous systems. We will be there for the acute portion just after the storm until local practitioners can get back up on their feet and support folks. We will function as mental health EMTs in a way,” she said.

The work is “offering folks what I wish I had been offered, honestly,” she added.

In the meantime, Zentara said her FEMA rental assistance has ended, and she hasn’t yet been approved for more. She’s paid the last two months’ rent out of pocket.

Pre-flood, Zentara had a tenant. She now faces what the other owners of substantially damaged homes in Montpelier face: loss of income from renting out space in her home, alongside the cost of rent while keeping up with the overhead on an unlivable home. 

Small things have helped: the city abated taxes on the substantially damaged homes in Montpelier, and the Montpelier Disaster Relief Network helped Zentara clean dirt and debris from her home last week. But it doesn’t remove the stress, and the knowledge that even if or when she’s made whole, housing costs have dramatically increased since she purchased her home.

“When the buyout does happen, I eventually would like to settle in the Montpelier area. I don’t know if I can afford to buy anything in Montpelier though. Maybe outside of Montpelier …” she said.

“It’s been a long haul with more miles to go.”

Ed Haggett at his flood-damaged home on State Street, March 28. Photo by Cassandra Hemenway.

Ed Haggett, State St.

“You’re up half the night trying to figure this whole mess out.”

Ed Haggett had just returned from a camping trip, a few days before his 70th birthday, when he came home to find the river had flooded his home last July. He stayed in his daughter’s den with her family in Barre while figuring out what to do. Now he’s about to turn 71, and he’s still in the den.

Haggett applied for a FEMA buyout on the home where he lived for 47 years, and where he raised his daughter. He also grew an elaborate garden in his backyard, developed over decades, complete with pools, trellises, pathways, and a myriad of flowers. The garden is now covered in silt, and inaccessible while Haggett lives in Barre. He’d like to garden in his daughter’s yard, but the first priority is to build a small addition so he can get out of the den.

For now, Haggett said he’s considering moving into his stripped-down house for the summer, just to give everyone a break from the cramped quarters.

Caught in a loop between the city, the state, FEMA, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) (from which he’s applying for a loan), Haggett said he’s exhausted.

Every time something looks hopeful, he said, it falls apart. In September 2023, FEMA planned to place 36 trailers on Montpelier’s Country Club Road to house people like him. By that December, the deal fell through. The federal government still paid the city more than $500,000, per the signed lease, but that money is now going into city projects rather than housing flood victims. 

While he waits to find out if he’ll get the buyout, Haggett has applied for a bridge loan from the SBA so he can start building the addition as soon as possible. The hope, he said, is to pay back the loan if or when FEMA buys his house. But, he said, “I have been working with the SBA for 10 months.” He described a “nightmare” application process that has involved multiple denials and hoops to jump through, and which still isn’t complete.

“You’re up half the night trying to figure this whole mess out. You get denial after denial and you’re always on edge,” he said.

Lisa Edson Neveau, State St

“It’s always eating at the back of my mind.”

Like her neighbors in similar situations, Edson Neveau is exactly where she was shortly after the flood. Unlike her neighbors, she and her two sons are still living in the flood-damaged home with no kitchen, no walls, and no ceiling in the family room.

“We can’t rebuild legally without elevating it. We can’t elevate it without a company to elevate it,” she said, noting that she had a contract with a company that does home elevations, but recently was told they can’t fit her in for at least a year.

The $1,300 per month in rental income she was getting for the two-bedroom apartment on her second floor is gone. She had just spent $5,000 upgrading the apartment to get more income out of it as a short-term rental unit when the flood came. Edson Neveau noted that she, Katie Swick, and Mary Zentara are all single parents who relied on income from renting out parts of their home.

“All three of us intentionally purchased properties to give us second incomes,” she said. “We made really smart business moves to make it so we could live in Montpelier on a single salary. A huge amount of thought went into my purchase.”

Like Haggett, she applied for an SBA loan; got approved for $40,000 but hasn’t yet used it. One of the loan requirements is to buy flood insurance, at $5,000 per year, she said. It’s something she’s already been doing, but had expected to no longer need it after elevating her home out of the flood zone. The answer to whether elevated homes will need flood insurance has been hard to come by, despite several conversations with her insurer, Edson Neveau said. She also doesn’t want to spend money on repairs that may not be allowed without an elevation and may not be worth it in the case of a buyout.

Edson Neveau said she is constantly thinking about how to manage the situation: elevating the house will cost about $250,000 she said — essentially a second mortgage. Getting a FEMA buyout sets her up to not be able to afford to live in Montpelier, close to family and where her sons attend school.

“It’s always eating at the back of my mind,” she said. “I’m never fully present with my kids, or my folks or my friends. … it has overwhelmed everything.”

Volunteers from the Montpelier Disaster Relief Network helped clean out Mary Zentara’s State Street home Tuesday, July 2. From left: Suzanne Belcher, Don Marsh in the background, Didi Brush, and AJ Jackson. Photo by Terry Allen

Katie Swick, Elm St.

“I’m constantly weighing what to do in my head.”

Katie Swick has had a hard year. The flood destroyed her Elm Street home; she got a divorce, and she had to pack up her classroom at the Roxbury Village School (where she teaches) after the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools board decided to stop sending students there. She’ll be teaching kindergarten at Union Elementary School in Montpelier this school year, but closing down the Roxbury school “has been sad and stressful.”

On top of her salary, up until the flood she had been earning $1,800 a month from her rental unit.

Her concerns about getting a FEMA buyout versus elevating her home echo those of Lisa Edson Neveau. A buyout might make her whole financially, but she’d be starting from scratch in terms of buying a new home, on a teacher’s salary, with housing prices that have skyrocketed.

Like Mary Zentara, Swick is at the end of a lease and has to reapply for FEMA rental assistance to be able to afford an apartment. Like Ed Haggett, she’s considering staying in her damaged home for the summer in hopes that the FEMA buyout will come through before winter. And Like Edson Neveau, she has been weighing the pros and cons of a FEMA buyout versus elevating.

“I’m constantly weighing what to do in my head,” she said. “Is it safe to be in the house?” Swick is also aware that a FEMA buyout in the next few months is unlikely. “You hear rumors all the time that the buyouts take two, three, four, five years. I don’t want to rely on that.”

The thing she finds hardest, she said, is not knowing what’s next. “Last year at this time, life felt fine and good. And then all of a sudden it wasn’t. There’s that fear that any day you could have some big thing to deal with … this idea of a false calm.” 

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