With FEMA Aid Denied, Steuben Co. Residents Lack Cushion For Repairs

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state will appeal the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) decision to deny Steuben County individual disaster assistance.

The state requested aid after flash flooding devastated homes there in August.

“The people of Steuben County have suffered enough, and it is our duty to work together to secure the federal funding they deserve,” Hochul said in a press release Tuesday night.

FEMA’s decision has left many residents awaiting help with repairs frustrated, including Priscilla Lewis-Conklin.

“Us individuals are the ones that need the money,” Lewis-Conklin said. “I mean, we had nothing to pay for the repairs and stuff.”

Lewis-Conklin and her husband have relied on his income as a truck driver and their social security to make ends meet in the past. But her husband suffered a stroke this month, and cannot drive because of it.

Lewis-Conklin’s home still does not have insulation or heat. She said she was hoping FEMA money would help her start on those repairs.

“Everything’s going up, so we have quite a challenge to figure out,” Lewis-Conklin said.

The southern part of Steuben County, which was hit hardest by flooding this summer, is extremely rural. That has been another challenge for residents who are still cleaning up their homes.

“We don’t have everything at our fingertips,” she said. “We have to go an hour one way or another to get supplies and stuff that we need as it is.”

Lewis-Conklin said FEMA’s decision to deny individual assistance has added to her frustration. She has received $2,500 from Catholic Charities to start repairs, but she estimated the total damage done to her home and property was closer to $10,000.

Lewis-Conklin’s home in Jasper borders Jasper-Troupsburg High School, which was also badly damaged during the flooding.

Steuben County was approved to receive public assistance, which can be used by governments and certain non-profits for roads, schools and other publicly-owned projects. So while the county can use FEMA public assistance to repair the school, its residential neighbors, like Lewis-Conklin, are not eligible.

Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler said while he was grateful for those funds, they cannot help residents who lost everything this summer.

“These are people’s lives,” Wheeler said. “These are people’s homes and businesses that are damaged.”

Riverine flooding in Woodhull, Steuben County, swept close to 7 feet of water into Helen Colegrove’s basement, damaging her utilities. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

Along with Steuben, FEMA approved public assistance for Allegany, Cayuga, Cortland, Lewis, Oneida, Steuben, Tioga and Yates Counties earlier this week.

But the agency told New York officials that Steuben County did not meet the threshold for individual assistance. Steuben was the only county New York submitted an individual assistance application for after Tropical Storm Fred struck the region.

Wheeler said the exact threshold for individual assistance is unclear, but he has remained certain the county has a strong case to appeal.

“Because when you see hundreds of homes and businesses listed, and you see the detail of ‘I had five feet of water flowing through my house,’ you know, to me, that’s pretty clear data,” Wheeler said. “That’s pretty clear information.”

FEMA looks at several factors to determine whether to grant individual assistance, including state fiscal capacity, personal property losses, the demographic profile of the population affected and casualties.

Wheeler said the county will work with the state to determine how and why FEMA’s damage assessment differed from theirs. He added the county did request FEMA’s data, but has yet to receive them.

Wheeler was careful to emphasize that an appeal of FEMA’s decision would not be a comprehensive solution. Even if the state wins its appeal, the assistance to families and businesses could come in the form of low-interest loans or small cash awards.

Wheeler added, “It might not make them whole, but it will certainly go a long way toward helping them recover.”