Conway Selectboard pens letter to MEMA in response to decision not to pursue federal disaster declaration

Rain and floodwater carved out large sections of Main Poland Road, Adams Road and other parts of Conway in July.

Rain and floodwater carved out large sections of Main Poland Road, Adams Road and other parts of Conway in July. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Erosion damage at Fields Hill and Whately roads in Conway, pictured in late July.

Erosion damage at Fields Hill and Whately roads in Conway, pictured in late July. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 09-13-2023 5:04 PM

CONWAY — Expressing disappointment in the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency’s (MEMA) decision not to apply for a federal disaster declaration, the Selectboard has sent a letter to the agency’s director requesting she at least submit the application and let its federal counterpart deny it.

The letter, which will also be sent to state Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Paul Mark, lays out the Selectboard’s grievances with MEMA and Director Dawn Brantley’s decision not to pursue the declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following three torrential downpours in July that “wrecked our town.” Damage estimates put Conway at approximately $3.9 million, while Deerfield’s estimate was set at around $4.7 million.

“We request that you rescind your declination, work with us and the other affected communities to fine-tune your application and submit the disaster declaration request to FEMA,” the Selectboard’s letter reads. “If you are unable or unwilling to do so, we ask that you kindly and promptly respond to the concerns we have shared in this letter.”

In late August, MEMA contacted Conway and Deerfield officials to inform them the storm damage estimates did “not meet the minimum threshold to pursue a federal disaster declaration” because each of the three storms were considered separate events, reimbursable damage thresholds were not met, and the storms “did not exceed the capability of the state and local governments to respond.”

“Restricting your analysis based on the predication of FEMA’s decision ... is alarming and consequential,” the Selectboard’s letter argues.

A major point of disagreement is MEMA stated the July 10 storm was close to the federal damage threshold of approximately $12.4 million, but the agency has found that actual repair costs have been about 50% of the original estimates in the case of the last six declared disasters.

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The Selectboard, however, said applying historical averages to that particular storm event — and any other disaster — is unfair to communities that have accurately reported initial damage assessments.

“We are confident that our IDA (initial damage assessment) would have survived any audit,” the letter reads. “To arbitrarily decrease the IDA by 50.67% based on historical data assumes that Conway’s IDA was 50% higher than it should have been, and therefore punishes the town for having put forth an accurately support assessment.”

In discussing the letter Tuesday evening, board members said they felt their concerns were laid out clearly and politely.

“I think there’s enough gruff in there to show our major disappointment in their decision — or lack thereof,” said Selectboard member Chris Waldo.

Selectboard Chair Philip Kantor struck a more irritated tone, suggesting the lack of population density and voting power in western Massachusetts often leads to concerns in this region being given less priority by state government agencies in Boston.

“I guarantee Leominster does not get a letter like us,” Kantor said Tuesday evening, approximately an hour before a press release was distributed by the state announcing that Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency for the city and other communities in Worcester and Bristol counties, which experienced up to 10 inches of rain Monday night.

“We’ll see where this gets us,” Kantor continued. “The worst they can do is say no, but they already did that.”

He added it often feels like rural communities like Conway are left to fend for themselves, a sentiment expressed in the letter, too.

“We’re on our own; nobody’s going to help except for MassDOT,” Kantor said. “It makes you want to call up Vermont and see if they’re interested in taking another county in their state.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.