Federal funding for Oak Bluffs faces further scrutiny

A meeting between the town administrator and FEMA brass left a cloud of uncertainty over anticipated storm repairs.

Photo by Michael Cummo

The long-running campaign by Oak Bluffs officials to secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy remained in limbo this week. In a meeting Tuesday, FEMA officials informed town Oak Bluffs officials that the town’s applications still lack proper documentation, and that internal mistakes on FEMA’s part still need to be reconciled.

“It was a tough meeting,” Robert Grimley, FEMA disaster recovery manager for Region 1, said in a phone call with The Times on Tuesday. “I know Mr. Whritenour was frustrated, but we can’t make final decisions without the proper documentation.

“I think the positive is there’s some information, like maintenance records, that’s readily available that the applicant can retrieve. The applicant, to their defense, said they had provided all the documentation to the joint field office, but for whatever reason, we never received it or someone doesn’t have a copy of it. We just want to make sure before we approve it that we have all the paperwork in order. If it slipped by us, all five of those projects could be at risk down the road if we didn’t fix them now.”

The five projects for which the town has applied to FEMA for funding include the dredging at Little Bridge at Sengekontacket, East Chop Road and Seaview Ave. bulkhead, restoration of beaches and jetties at Pay Beach, Jetty Beach, and the Inkwell, the seawall at North Bluff, and East Chop Bluff.

“The meeting was a little disappointing,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said in a phone call with The Times on Wednesday. “They started off telling us that FEMA may have made some mistakes. They said consider this like an audit. The long and short of it, we had months of discussion with various project engineers which ended in FEMA sending their signed project worksheets which documented the town’s eligibility and the scope for each one of the five projects. To have them come back and say we’ve reviewed those and we think FEMA made some mistakes, means redoing all of the work that we’ve already done. The one good part that came out of it is they agreed to a weekly conference call so we could stay on top of this and there wouldn’t be anymore surprises.”

In addition to Mr. Whritenour, the town was also represented at the meeting by selectman Walter Vail and conservation commissioner Elizabeth Durkee.

“It was my expectation that the Sengekontacket dredging and the North Bluff project were going to receive final approval,” Mr. Whritenour said. “The next window for dredging is from September 1 to January 15. Hopefully we’ll be on track. Sengie is an ecological problem and the longer we wait, the more we jeopardize the health of the pond. I don’t see any major roadblocks, but I didn’t see any before either. North Bluff is even more frustrating. Their engineer questions extent of damage to the wall. It’s disappointing for this to come up at this late juncture. We were under the impression that was resolved.”

The channels at Big Bridge and Little Bridge connect Sengekontacket to Nantucket Sound, and provide the only flushing of the pond.

Deal or no deal

A critical misunderstanding occurred between the town and FEMA in October, 2013, when town officials apparently assumed that a FEMA sign-off on a project worksheet locked in federal funds. In his town administrator’s report on October 22, 2013, Mr. Whritenour wrote, “Oak Bluffs has received approval and signed contracts for more than $4.3 million in federal disaster assistance: $553,086 for Sengekontacket dredging; $664,588 for East Chop Road and Seaview Avenue bulkhead repair; $1,165,284 for beach and jetty restoration at the Inkwell, Pay Beach and Jetty Beach; and $1,960,845 for North Bluff seawall repair.”

“Unfortunately, the applicant believed that because they [FEMA] signed the project work sheet that it obligated the federal government to funding,” Mr. Grimley said. “What that really means is that the project specialist and the applicant are agreeing to the damages that they are measuring. It does not mean that the federal government is obligated to commit to that money.”

Speaking with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Whritenour maintained there was no such confusion on the town’s part. “We attended training sessions, we know project worksheet approval is not a grant, but it is first key juncture,” he said. “They determine what the scope of project is. We did think they agreed to the scope.”

Help for Sengie
Mr. Grimley said he and other Region 1 FEMA officials are looking at every angle to secure funding for the town. “We’re working very hard to get them the funding,” he said. “Our lawyers are the best. They’re very creative when it comes to getting approvals and working within the laws and regulations.”

Mr. Grimley cited the Little Bridge dredging project as an example. “We’ll rewrite the project worksheet on that so instead of having it under beach replenishment, which is considered permanent work, we’ll put it under debris removal. It’s certainly eligible for that and it’s a lot easier to get approved.”

Mr. Grimley said that some FEMA decisions were imminent, although he did not specify which ones. “We’re very close to making a determination one way or another. If it’s not favorable, they have an opportunity to appeal to the regional administrator here in Boston, and if they’re still not satisfied they can make a second appeal to FEMA headquarters. We’d rather make the determination favorable right up front; that way we don’t go through more rigamarole.”