MONTPELIER, Vt. – In the weeks after Tropical Storm Irene caused widespread flooding in Vermont, the role of the National Guard changed from getting emergency food and medical supplies to cutoff towns to helping state transportation crews rebuild roads into those towns.
On Wednesday, nearly eight months after the storm, Gov. Peter Shumlin and other officials announced they’d been told of a change in federal policy that’s likely to be seen as good news by state emergency responders around the country: The Federal Highway Administration says it will reimburse state National Guard units when they pitch in to do emergency road repair work.
“National Guard troops were vital to Vermont’s recovery effort, saving lives and property in the hardest-hit areas, and helping with road and bridge repair,” Shumlin said.
With the FHWA agreement that it will pay $4 million to reimburse the Guard’s road work, that much will be freed up for the state to use elsewhere in ongoing efforts to rebuild from the storm, Shumlin said.
The FHWA decision is a reversal from an earlier ruling that money would not be available to reimburse the state for payments to the National Guard. Guard units from Vermont and other states, including Maine and New Hampshire, were active in Vermont after the storm in a variety of recovery activities.
Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, which led efforts to rebuild hundreds of washed-out road sections and bridges, got reimbursed under the FHWA’s emergency relief program. But when the state asked for additional funds to pay the National Guard for help with construction projects, that request was denied.
Vermont Assistant Attorney General Daniel Dutcher told the FHWA in a memo that refusing to pay for the Guard’s help on post-disaster construction projects was “bad policy” that might leave states reluctant to deploy Guard troops for emergency repairs.
“As a result, work could be delayed, which could compromise public safety and infrastructure and increase expenses in the long run,” he wrote.
The new policy will allow payment for National Guard work under certain conditions, which Vermont officials said the state meets. The Guard work must be done under the direction of an entity otherwise eligible for emergency relief funding, like the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The work must not get other federal funding, and construction work must be reported separately from other Guard services like rescue operations.
Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said the Guard provided key services after the storm that the state likely would have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere.