04.07.15

SCHUMER: FEDS MUST PROVIDE FUNDS TO HELP REPAIR HUGE SINK HOLE IN DOWNTOWN KINGSTON; $7+ MILLION DOLLAR COST IS OUT OF REACH FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT—FEMA MUST UPDATE ITS POLICY AND ALLOW COMMUNITIES LIKE KINGSTON TO GET FED AID FOR SINKHOLE REPAIRS

Schumer Says Sinkhole Damages Are Too Expensive For Many Local Governments To Pay; It’s Unfair To Put Such A Large Financial Burden On The Backs Of Local Governments, Especially For A Project Like Kingston’s That Costs $7 Million or More – Major Weather Events Like Irene Exacerbate Sinkholes; Funding Could Help Mitigate Future Disaster Impacts

 

Kingston Sinkhole Has Kept Section of Washington Ave. Closed For Over 3 Years, Inconveniencing Drivers & Residents, And Hurting Downtown Development – FEMA Urgently Needs To Provide Funding for Sinkhole Repairs To Speed Up Road Reopening & Prevent Other Communities From Going Through The Same Experience as Kingston

 

Schumer To FEMA: Sinkholes May Eat Through The Ground But They Should Not Eat Through A City’s Budget

 

Today, at the sinkhole on Washington Avenue in downtown Kingston, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to update its policies and make sinkholes eligible for FEMA hazard mitigation funding, which reimburses municipalities for disaster mitigation expenses and helps build infrastructure back stronger. FEMA has no record of ever funding sinkhole repairs under its hazard mitigation programs and current FEMA guidance is unclear on the question of whether such repairs would be eligible expenses under these programs. Therefore, Schumer said that FEMA should update its policies to make it clear that sinkhole repairs are eligible for hazard mitigation funding, since sinkholes can be exacerbated by storms and flooding and have significant impacts on communities. Schumer noted that the sinkhole on Washington Avenue, which was exacerbated by Hurricane Irene and has forced the road to be closed for over three years, will cost at least $7 million to repair, an amount that is difficult for a community like Kingston to afford. Schumer said that FEMA must change its policy and allow communities like Kingston to get federal assistance for sinkhole repairs. Without this change, sinkhole repairs can eat through a municipality’s budget and lead to major hikes on local taxes. 

“The City of Kingston’s sinkhole was exacerbated by Hurricane Irene and it should be eligible for disaster relief just like any other damage caused by a natural disaster. FEMA must update its policies ASAP so that Kingston and communities like it do not have to foot the entire bill for repairs. $7 million is a lot for Kingston’s taxpayers to swallow and FEMA must step up and help,” said Schumer. “Right now, because FEMA is unclear on its own policy regarding reimbursements for sinkhole repairs, it has failed to provide any city with the funds necessary to rebuild following these incidents, and that is unacceptable. So today, I am urging FEMA to clarify its rule and open up its coffers for Kingston. A precedent should be set here and now for providing the kind of funding that is vital following a sinkhole as devastating to the community as this one on Washington Ave. We should not leave local taxpayers holding the bag for infrastructure costs critical to helping them get back on their feet.”

Schumer explained that, in March of 2011, the City of Kingston’s Department of Public Works responded to a sinkhole that had opened on the west side of Washington Avenue. While initial repairs were made shortly thereafter, the sinkhole, measuring two to three feet in diameter and seven feet in depth, re-formed just a year later. Following the reopening of Washington Ave, the City monitored the settlement conditions of the road from July 2011 through March 2012. However, during this 8-month period, the region experienced the wrath of Hurricane Irene. Schumer said while there is no single factor that causes a sinkhole to appear, they can be exacerbated by storms and flooding, like the kind that Ulster County experienced during Hurricane Irene.

Schumer said this sinkhole has had a significant impact on the City of Kingston and surrounding communities. Since the sinkhole reopened three years ago, the section of Washington Ave has been closed between Linderman Avenue and State Route 32. As a result, this has caused serious disruptions in travel and greatly inconvenienced residents, who have had to alter their travel plans over the past three years to avoid the sinkhole. It also hurts local businesses. Traffic is still currently being redirected through Clinton Ave because this sinkhole has made the section of Washington Ave no longer safe for vehicular traffic. In addition, this sinkhole has caused complications at the wastewater treatment plant due to high levels of sediment. Schumer said this is alarming because Washington Ave serves as a critical sanitary and storm water passageway for much of the City, including the entire Washington Avenue corridor and Uptown area.

Despite the danger, public health concerns, and general inconvenience this sinkhole has posed to the community, the City of Kingston has been unable to secure sufficient federal funding to cover repair costs. The lack of federal funding has made financing repairs difficult for the City to afford. Without federal help, the city and its taxpayers would have to shoulder a very high cost for repairs. City officials have said that the cost of repairs to the sinkhole and rebuilding the section of Washington Ave to guard against future flood and storm water threats would cost the City at least $7 million. Right now, they are accepting bids for contractors to fully repair the sinkhole, but Schumer said a FEMA reimbursement should be an option on the table, but currently is not. Schumer said $7 million is an exorbitant amount of money for a small city government.

 

As a result, Schumer is urging FEMA to update its policies and make sinkholes eligible for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) funding, which is used to reimburse municipalities for disaster mitigation expenses and help them build infrastructure back stronger so that the same damage is not incurred during a future storm or severe weather incident. Schumer said that while he successfully helped secure $1.12 million in federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) Disaster Relief Opportunity funds for infrastructure repairs to restore access to commercial and small businesses in the Kingston city center around the sinkhole, still more is needed to cover the remaining $7 million cost of the project. Schumer said the City of Kingston previously applied for funds and was denied by FEMA through their Public Assistance (PA) program because it was hard to prove the sinkhole was a direct result of Hurricane Irene. However, Schumer said, the HMGP program should be more broad and all-encompassing when it comes to future mitigation and, therefore, Schumer says it should include sinkholes like the one in Kingston that was exacerbated by the hurricane. Schumer said sinkhole repairs are well-aligned with the goals of FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs because, in many cases, these repairs will reduce the risk to individuals and property from natural disasters while also reducing reliance on future federal disaster funding. Schumer said that once FEMA’s policies are updated, Kingston should be allowed to apply.

 

Schumer was joined by Ulster County Executive Michael Hein, City of Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, and City of Kingston Engineer Ralph Swenson.

 

“The fact that FEMA has no record of ever funding sink hole damage is unconscionable.  Having witnessed first hand the ravages of Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and Super Storm Sandy there is no question that these natural disasters have exacerbated sink hole infrastructure problems and I want to commend Senator Schumer for fighting for change,” said Ulster County Executive Michael Hein.

 

A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to FEMA appears below:

 

Dear Administrator Fugate:

 

I write to urge FEMA to update their policies regarding eligibility for Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to make sinkhole repairs eligible for federal funding under those programs.

 

As you know, while there is no single factor that causes a sinkhole to appear, sinkholes can be exacerbated by storms and flooding, and have significant impacts on communities. For instance, the Washington Avenue sinkhole in Kingston, New York opened in spring 2011, and while initial repairs were made, the sinkhole, measuring two to three feet in diameter and seven feet in depth, re-formed a year later. The section of Washington Avenue has been closed since then, and the sinkhole also caused temporary disruptions in utilities in the area, in addition to causing complications at the wastewater treatment plant because of high levels of sediment.

 

I realize that FEMA has no direct experience providing funding for sinkhole repairs under the Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs. However, it seems clear that certain sinkhole repairs could be well-aligned with the goals of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs—in many cases, these repairs will reduce the risk to individuals and property from natural disasters while also reducing reliance on future federal disaster funding. Because current guidelines are unclear, I urge you to update the eligibility requirements for PDM and HMGP funding to make it clear that sinkhole repairs can be eligible expenses under those mitigation programs, provided they meet other program requirements.

 

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request. Should you have any questions or need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me or my office.

 

Sincerely,

 

Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator

 

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