Gowanda's Long Wait for FEMA Funds

GOWANDA, N.Y. -- The 2,700 village residents in Gowanda shake off this winter's snow-removal chores with ease in comparison to the back-breaking job of mud-removal they've been through.

That was what Gowanda faced 4 ½ years ago when the Cattaraugus Creek spilled over its banks.

"There was a lot of mud," says Mayor Heather McKeever.

Along with mud, was millions in damage the village needed to fix right away.

"There was damage to our water reservoir our roads probably had over a million-dollars worth of damage to our roads. We absolutely didn't have the money and we were definitely dependent on FEMA to help us with that," says McKeever.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did come to help. It approved a list of 21 items that needed fixing or replacing. The way these FEMA projects work is by reimbursement. Local communities borrow the money, do the repairs, turn in the paperwork…and FEMA reimburses them.

But years later, Gowanda is still waiting for $680,000 from FEMA.

And the interest payments continue to pile up.

McKeever says "The last four years we've paid it's about a hundred eighty-five thousand dollars in interest."

For a small village government with a discretionary budget of just 1.6 million dollars, the total interest paid waiting on FEMA amounts to what it costs Gowanda to fund its police department for an entire year. It's not small potatoes to them.

So, what's the hold up?

The money pipe-line to Gowanda goes like this. In New York State, FEMA money first goes to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services which passes it along to the affected community.

Who's holding up the cash? Chris Holmes with DHSES says it's not state government.

"I don't believe there's been anything in the Gowanda instance that I can think of where we have not been responsive to any of the requests for information from FEMA and done our best to move things through as rapidly as we can."

FEMA's Region II spokesman Donald Caetano tells Channel 2 News insists his agency is only partly to blame saying, we both could have done better."

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer was much more emphatic.

"The largest part of the blame here is on FEMA."

Schumer has been frequently critical of FEMA in recent years and has lost patience with the agency.

"I think you almost have two FEMA's. Like a Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde…there's a FEMA that's on the ground that says, 'We're going to help you. Go rebuild. These are reimbursable expenses but then there's another FEMA…a sort of bureaucratic FEMA that audits the heck out of you…and goes back on the word of what the FEMA-on-the-ground people told you. The trouble is it's the same darn organization!"

The good news tonight is that FEMA assures Channel 2 News that all of the money earmarked for the Gowanda flooding projects has left the agency and is now moving its way through Albany and on to Gowanda.

Schumer isn't satisfied. He promises a review of FEMA practices in an upcoming meeting with top FEMA management. New York's senior Senator also thanks Channel 2 for bringing the on-going Gowanda struggle with FEMA to his attention.

"I think the two people that tried to make this happen were…are named Chuck Schumer and Steve Brown."

Updated with the news the money's on its way, Mayor Heather McKeever promises to let Channel 2 News know when the FEMA funds arrive.


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