To say that the impact of last October's storm on West Hartford was huge is a vast understatement.
The financial costs alone were astronomical.
for $5.5 million. That was just the first installment of West Hartford's total bill for storm-related expenses which totalled nearly $12 million and is being reimbursed at a 75 percent level.
"We've now gotten all but a few hundred thousand," Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said on Monday when asked for an update. He said that a check for the remaining reimbursement is being processed by the state, and he hopes to receive it shortly. At that point, West Hartford will have received nearly $7.4 million from FEMA.
Van Winkle said that the town is also waiting for $1.3 million of reimbursement from the Federal Highway Administration for clean up of West Hartford's major arteries, which are considered fedeal highways. "They are very slow, but we expect to receive it," he said.
Initial discussions involved withdrawal of the remaining clean up costs – approximately $3 million – from the town's Fund Balance. That plan has been the subject of extensive discussion by the Town Council, which agreed that paying for this extraordinary and unpredictable expense was a necessary and appropriate use of the town's "savings account."
Rating agencies, including Moody's and Standard & Poors, expressed some concern about the reduction in the town's fund balance, but West Hartford has been able to maintain its exemplary bond rating.
And now it appears as if very little – if anything – will have to be withdrawn from the Fund Balance to pay for the non-reimbursed storm expenses.
"We worked hard to postpone and reduce spendng during the last fiscal year, and ended up with a $1 million surplus, which took that down by one third," Van Winkle said regarding the town's $3 million responsibility.
In addition, Van Winkle said that the town received a premium on its recent bond offering, totalling nearly $2 million. "Together, that covered all but $187,000 of the town's costs," he said.
Van Winkle expects the town to receive a total of $8.7 million in disaster recovery grants, at least in the first round. The Federal Highway Adminstration program only reimburses for one round of debris pickup on affected roads, but West Hartford had two rounds.
"We plan to go back to FEMA for additional funding for the second pickup. If we can get that, we should not have to use any of our fund balance. That's good for the rating agencies, which were concerned," Van Winkle said.
He's thankful and extremely grateful for FEMA's involvement, despite how onerous the application process was. "Federal aid is huge for us; I don't know what we'd do without it."
That application process, said Director of Public Works John Phillips, involved hundreds of work hours in addition to maintaining his department's regular operations.
"It took tremendous sacrifice for Department of Public Works Budget Analyst Tom Niedzwicki to successfully collect, categorize, and edit our grant applications. All in all we submitted 17 grant application that FEMA consolidated to 13. Each activity had to be a separate application – activities such as the curbside collection, each shelter the town operated, Police Department incurred costs, Fire Department activity, street and traffic light damage, public building damage, etc.," Phillips said.
According to Phillips, thousands of pages of documentation, and 15,000 photographs, were submitted. The "hanger program" requires photos of a hazardous tree before and after the "hanger" is removed, and a photo of the hanger itself to document that it is more than two inches in diameter. West Hartford had 5,000 "hangers."
"The effort of town staff and contractor resources can not ever be underestimated," said Phillips. He said that town's early recognition of the magnitude of the cleanup was key to the ability to provide proper documentation.
"Decisions made in the first hours of the damage assessment and work clearing roads certainly supported the success of the daunting task the town had ahead of us to comply with the FEMA grant process," said Phillips.
Van Winkle said that the amount of debris picked up in West Hartford, which according to Phillips was 380,000 cubic yards – the most of any community in the state – would fill a football field 210 feet high.