Towns along the Housatonic River need to work together to secure large chunks of money from the federal government so they can clean up after natural disasters and plan for future acts of God.
After all, local leaders say, it seems large counties in parts of the U.S. that have county-style government get the crux of funding from organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since Connecticut does not have county-style government, the only way to compete with areas that have more people and bigger voting blocs is for municipalities to work together for funding rather than fight with each other for dollars.
That was the consensus Friday among municipal leaders whose towns line the Housy, which overflowed its banks and flooded out yards, streets and affected several residents and businesses during Hurricane Irene; local officials say they are still tallying how much the damage will cost taxpayers. Mayors, first selectmen and/or their representatives met with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Christopher Murphy at Oxford Town Hall to discuss how local communities were impacted by Hurricane Irene, how the federal government can help and, perhaps most importantly, how the communities can help each other.
"This cries out for a regional solution because right now it’s whatever helps one town seems to hurt another,” said Brookfield First Selectman Bill Davidson.
Blumenthal agreed with Davidson and others who suggested a regionalized approach; the senator recommended someone send FEMA a letter written signed by officials from towns affected by Housatonic River flooding and other storm damage.
“By all of us signing a letter to FEMA – Republicans, Democrats – it would be very powerful and would send a strong message in Washington,” Blumenthal said.
Seymour First Selectman Paul Roy, whose community was impacted not only by the Housy but also by high water levels along the Naugatuck River, said it became clear from hearing the towns' stories that local reps needed to support one another.
"Other communities have a county government that can do all the legwork for them," he said. "We don't. And our councils of governments try to help, but they are too small to be as effective as we need them to be. So, we're taking this proactive approach and hopefully the message will get back to Washington."
Oxford First Selectman Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers said the message has to be firm, and by showing a united front, the towns assure that it is. Also, she said, the message should not be that another study - which was discussed by federal reps on Friday - will be the be all, end all of the situation. She said the towns need action: they need to come up with a game plan for how to work with FirstLight, the power company that owns the Stevenson Dam on the Oxford-Monroe line, and the Federal Emergency Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to discuss major flooding preventative measures that can be taken by both in future storms.
"Another study sounds great, and I know we need the facts to go forward, but I think most of the numbers and facts are there," she said. "I don't want this to be a long, drawn out study. "If we have another '100-year flood' in a month or two, that's ineffective and that's not what our residents deserve." (Oxford will hold a meeting with residents and FEMA representatives on Monday night. .)
Holding Agencies Accountable
All of the politicians or their representatives expressed frustration not only with Mother Nature but also with FirstLight and FERC. Derby Mayor Tony Staffeiri questioned, as many have in the past, why FirstLight Power doesn't drop water levels more before storms. ()
Blumenthal said not only does FirstLight need to be responsive to concerns, but so does FERC, which oversees FirstLight.
"FERC has been chronically unresponsive," he said. "We can't allow FERC and FirstLight to be blaming each other and therefore nobody takes responsibility."
Rob Sibley, Newtown's deputy director of planning & land use, suggested pushing FirstLight for more information on the capacity of the dam and how much control the company has over whether people downstream get flooded. For example, he said one can get specific data prior to a storm that will help with planning and response when a storm does hit. He threw out a possible scenario that could be posed to FirstLight: if the company lowered the water level, say, 16 feet, and we get four inches of rain in a watershed - all the way up to Massachusetts since the watershed covers three states - then is that going to make a difference?
What officials want to know is, "Does that get us three hours of flood time or does that relieve us for a week-and-a-half?" Sibley said. "So, if we know that, then we can find out if there is going to be an impact associated with recreation and (power) generation, and (if that answer is yes), we can tell them to go ahead and lower it 11 feet or so because we don't want to flood downstream."
More Frequent Rain Means More Flooding, More Problems For Towns
Sibley said the conservation districts in Connecticut have confirmed that annual water rates will be 10-to-15 percent higher year over year as they have been traditionally - about 46-to-49-inches per year.
"Think about how that affects our 25-year and 10-year storm designs, our storm runoffs, our capacities and our storm maintenance systems," he said.
Congressman Murphy made what sounded like a joke about the amount of flooding, but his comment was true on its face: "These 100-year floods that we used to get once in a lifetime, we're getting every two, three years," he said.
Economic Impacts of Flooding
Murphy said local businesses cannot take the hit of being shut down for long stretches every two years when there is a flood. Following Hurricane Irene, businesses all over the state were shut down for several days, including the entire in Oxford and several businesses on Route 7 in New Milford.
"Every time there is a flood, those businesses shut down along Route 7; that is economic devastation for that area," Murphy said, adding that if FEMA put money into fixing that problem, it would be money well spent.
New Milford Mayor Pat Murphy, who attended Friday's meeting, said there is a restaurant in her town that is closing because it had flooded twice this year and couldn't bounce back from the setbacks.
"These floods have a major economic impact, and for a state that is promising improvement in the economy and job growth, this is a killer," she said. "So now multiply that by every town in the region: it's an absolute killer."
If officials can take solace in one thing, it's that, they say, Friday proved the right people are willing to bring a message on their behalf back to people who can help in Washington, said Sibley, the Newtown land use official.
"We're finally getting some listening ears down in D.C. that the disasters are not just out in the midwest or the far west," he said. "The issues, clearly, are also here."
Correction: Patricia Llodra is the first selectman for Newtown. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified her. Also, Pat Murphy is the mayor of New Milford. She was the person who attended Friday's meeting and spoke about New Milford. Llodra did not attend the meeting. We regret the error.