Franklin County towns talk extreme weather prep, maximizing storm damage relief

By CHRIS LARABEE and JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writers

Published: 08-10-2023 6:14 PM

With damage assessments sent to state and federal partners, the Deerfield and Conway selectboards are working together to bring more storm damage relief to their hard-hit communities, while other local towns look to prepare themselves in anticipation of more extreme weather events.

Facing estimates of $4.7 million in Deerfield and $3.9 million in Conway to get town roads stabilized, officials are banding together to seek as many funding sources as possible to prevent difficult financial burdens on taxpayers.

In a joint meeting between the boards on Wednesday evening, Conway Selectboard Chair Philip Kantor sought advice from his town’s neighbors and said they are looking for as much help as they can get.

“We got the approval to spend that amount in deficit, which is not my desired outcome, of course — that’s one of the reasons why we’re here,” Kantor said. “I’m looking for alternatives.”

Leading the discussion was Deerfield Selectboard Chair Carolyn Shores Ness, who in her more than 20 years on the board has worked through several natural disasters, including Hurricane Irene and flooding in 2005 that washed out Upper Road. She laid out a three-step repair plan that begins with stabilizing roads, getting them back to the state they were in and implementing climate-resiliency techniques to ensure they aren’t washed out in the future.

“Over the years, we’ve had millions and millions of dollars worth of damages,” Shores Ness said. “[This year is] more than what we had in Irene and it is overwhelming, but you’ve just got to be calm.”

One option would be working with state legislators to get money sent to the towns, which Deerfield Selectboard member Trevor McDaniel said may be more effective if they rally other local towns that also experienced damage.

“We just need to work together as communities and reach out to other communities that have been affected so that we can really take this message home to our legislators,” he said. “We just can’t — and I know you can’t either — begin to figure out how you’re going to pay for all of that manpower and materials.”

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Kantor, however, said relying on state legislators isn’t an efficient option.

“Having been through Hurricane Irene in 2011 and knowing that the appropriation from the state arrived in our Town Hall in 2018,” Kantor replied, “the promise of doing it through the State House does not hold much allure for me.”

There is a possibility, however, that the Legislature passes a supplemental budget, which typically comes in October, according to Shores Ness. Both boards acknowledged legislators were able to get additional money to farmers in a supplemental budget earlier this month and the same sort of aid could come to municipalities in western Massachusetts that have been damaged.

“They did it for the farmers, they can do it for us,” Shores Ness said.

On the federal end, Shores Ness has said in recent weeks that Deerfield is trying to lead the way on securing money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Watershed Program, which supplies federal resources to communities after natural disasters.

Conway is following a similar path, as it has a representative from the agency likely visiting the town Monday, according to Town Administrator Veronique Blanchard.

There are also the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grants and Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Grants, which the towns could possibly submit a joint application for. Both the Emergency Watershed Program and FEMA grants will take time though, and Shores Ness said it’s important both communities and their residents remain patient throughout the process.

“Your recovery is a three- to five-year process,” she said.

That notion of patience was echoed by Deerfield Highway Superintendent Kevin Scarborough, who encouraged residents in both towns to understand that these repairs take time. The first goal is to make sure the town’s infrastructure is safe before making any cosmetic fixes to roads.

“I hope people understand there is so much devastation in both of our towns, that they’ve got to give us a little bit of leeway to get things opened up,” Scarborough said. “Everything is open now where people can get to where they need to get to — they may just take the long way around.”

Montague damages

Although it experienced significantly less damage than Deerfield or Conway, Montague will continue to monitor an embankment on Millers Falls Road that was potentially compromised by a failed pipe following July’s rains, the Selectboard decided Monday.

According to Montague’s Assistant Town Administrator Walter Ramsey, the same pipe failure caused the embankment, located land owned by FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. between 89 and 103 Millers Falls Road, to collapse gradually throughout 2020. While that instance left a sheer cliff about 80 feet wide, this time, the embankment appears unaffected for the time being.

“The good news is that the embankment itself seems to be really stable,” Walter told the Selectboard. “There’s a lot of rock there. The only issue is the bottom, and it doesn’t seem to be actively eroding in the opinion of the Department of Public Works.”

The DPW conducted repair work in 2020 with support from state Chapter 90 funding, according to Ramsey. He said a funding source for any additional work and whether the work would be outsourced or completed in-house will be determined if the town deems it necessary.

Elsewhere in Montague, various areas along the Connecticut River, as well as Montague City Road, have been heavily impacted by recent rains, Ramsey said. He noted that Montague City Road, which has a lengthy history of flooding, had to be closed “at least six times” over the past month. A Montague City Road Flooding Relief Project that “is engineered to accommodate a 100-year flood event through restoration of the floodplain and wetlands surrounding the channel,” according to a March 2022 Special Town Meeting warrant, remains ongoing.

Charlemont damages

Farther west in Charlemont, Selectboard Chair Valentine Reid described the flood damage in his town as “minor,” but looked at July’s extreme weather as an opportunity to plan for the future. According to Emergency Management Director and Fire Chief Dennis Annear, only South River Road experienced flooding and was closed, but soil became saturated across town.

“My takeaway is things went well during the minor flooding that we had, and things went the way they should have,” Reid reflected during a meeting Tuesday. “When I wanted to have this discussion, it was really just: let’s take a moment and reflect to make sure it keeps going well.”

To prepare for future floods and storms, Annear proposed delegating secretarial duties during an emergency to Town Hall employees instead of emergency responders, which he said would benefit Charlemont. For example, Annear proposed Town Hall employees keep track of what roads are passable, as well as the services and equipment used in a weather emergency so Charlemont can receive reimbursement from FEMA.

“You have everybody here running around doing stuff,” said Jared Bellows, Selectboard member and retired police chief. “Somebody needs to keep track of every move they make, because it’s all potentially reimbursable.”

Annear emphasized that delegating this secretarial role outside emergency responders is especially important because most responders only work part-time. Reid proposed tasking Assessors’ Clerk Carlene Hayden with the role when Town Administrator Sarah Reynolds is unavailable, but the Selectboard made no final decisions on Tuesday.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081. Julian Mendoza can be reached at jmendoza@recorder.com or 413-930-4231. Intern Aalianna Marietta contributed to this story.

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