Berlin’s Ineligibility For Storm Help Explained

BERLIN — With questions still lingering after major flooding struck Berlin last month, Worcester County Emergency Services Director Teresa Owens visited the town in an attempt to clear the air this week.

Specifically, Owens explained why Berlin did not qualify for any Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance over the late-August rain event.

“FEMA has specific guidelines on major damage, minor damage,” she said.

Owens followed up by revealing that properties in Berlin did not meet any of those “stringent” guidelines in terms of damage. For example, as a county, Worcester would have needed to sustain about $175,000 in damage to qualify for a 75 percent FEMA reimbursement. That scenario happened during Hurricane Irene, though the threshold was slightly lower at $150,000, said Owens.

However, the most recent heavy rain event failed to impart nearly that level of damage and, unlike Irene, did not dramatically affect the county at large. Instead, it almost entirely pounded Berlin, which Owens admitted was “a phenomenal thing.”

“It couldn’t have been predicted,” she said, noting that unusual weather had stalled a storm front over the town, leading to massive rainfall within only a few hours.

On the individual side, Eddie Werkheiser from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) explained that a house would need to suffer at least 40 percent structural damage from a storm before FEMA would step in. And even then, he continued, they wouldn’t simply replace or refund any damage.

“They do not pay for total replacement of your property,” agreed Owens.

Instead, FEMA would offer low-interest loans to homeowners, according to Werkheiser. And if more than 25 homes in the area met the 40 percent damage minimum and a state of emergency was declared, FEMA could offer some “mitigation funds” as well, he concluded.

In the case of Berlin, none of that happened, leaving homeowners to foot 100 percent of their bills with no special loans or assistance.

While the fact that FEMA wasn’t going to help came out earlier this month, the exact details weren’t as well known, and the council thanked Owens for explaining where everything stood.

“People assume a lot of things,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall.

Mayor Gee Williams agreed and argued that the storm, as damaging as it was, came with the silver lining of waking people up.

“It has been an unfortunate but necessary learning experience,” said Williams.

The mayor used this as a jumping point to reiterate the same points he’s been making since the storm flooded the town on Aug. 25: Berlin needs a stormwater utility and all residents need flood insurance.

Werkheiser interjected that the most recent weather has caused him to look into protecting his own home.

“This whole situation prompted me to get flood insurance,” he said, adding that he lives in Wicomico County.

Werkheiser, Owens and the council all also agreed that, even though the last rain event was a so-called “1,000-year storm,” it could happen again in the near future with weather as unpredictable as it is.

“We don’t know what to expect here on out,” said Owens.

In all storm events where damage is experienced, Werkheiser reminded residents to save any receipts for their expenses as well as to document all damage through photographs.

“Save everything … take pictures of everything,” he advised.
For more information, Owens recommended visiting www.fema.org

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