JAY – Ten weeks after a massive flood event washed out over a dozen roads and multiple major highways in the town of Jay, the Major Disaster Declaration from President Biden offers some relief, but it is only one step in a lengthy process towards full restoration.
A series of flood disasters have impacted nearly every town in Franklin County since December 2022, highlighting areas of need, weakened infrastructure, and gaps in resources and manpower coverage. For some of the smaller communities, the damaged roads may cost more than the municipal budget for regular road maintenance. Frequent rain storms throughout the summer have delayed roadwork operations and paving, and the extensive damages have, in some cases, crippled communities. Jay has seen some of the worst damages, with the current estimate at more than $7 million to repair.
On June 29, 2023, a rain storm lasting a few hours dropped an estimated five to six inches of rain across the town of Jay and parts of neighboring towns. This resulted in substantial damages to more than two dozen roads including Route 4, Route 133, and a number of residential roads in Jay. The storm also damaged the Whistlestop Rail Trail and the sewer line on Main Street.
Route 133 is reopened, as of last weekend, although travel conditions may be rough in places due to shoulder drop-offs, uneven pavement, patches of dirt with bumps, and extensive new ditching. Paul Merrill, Director of Communications for Maine Department of Transportation, said that there will still be some lane closures as crews finish up some work, but vehicles can get through.
Town officials said that Lomie Rivers Road, Woodman Hill Road, and Macomber Hill Road are still closed, with unknown dates of restoration. The Begin Road and Hutchinson Road both have temporary access with more repairs needed in the future, and all other town roads are reopened and repaired except for paving.
The sewer line is intact, although there are damages to the line that need to be repaired. The town is exploring the possibility of relocating the line out of the ditch area on Main Street in an effort to prevent further damages.
The town of Jay has a paving contract with Pike Industries for the regular summer paving projects. The town is pivoting to have the damaged roads repaved instead of the regular summer schedule.
Woodman Hill Road had a culvert fail during the flood event, leaving a massive washout in the roadway. The bid for Woodman Hill Road has been awarded to CCC Construction and the work is expected to be complete by October 15, except for the paving; that paving project will be covered by Pike as well.
Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said the town can have Woodman repaired without the need for engineering and permitting because they are installing the same size culvert, bringing the road back to the same condition it was before the flood. Macomber Hill Road had a similar washout, but the road needs a larger culvert installed, which isn’t covered under the disaster funding. In addition, the project needs to be engineered, permitted, and approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, a process that can take a significant period of time.
There are different sources of Federal Emergency Management Agency relief funds available for the town. The disaster declaration funds provide reimbursement for infrastructure repairs, back to the state prior to the disaster event. These funds do not allow for improvements to prevent similar issues from occurring in the future. However, FEMA mitigation funds can be used to improve the infrastructure for the future and mitigate future damages. LaFreniere said they are trying to juggle the reimbursement funds and mitigation funds, and figure out which process is necessary for each project.
Franklin County Emergency Management Agency is in the process of finalizing the five-year mitigation plan for Franklin County, which is key in accessing some of these additional funds for the municipalities in the county. The mitigation plan outlines demographics across the county and identifies key hazards that could be addressed. FEMA has approved the plan pending local approval, so each municipal board in the county is asked to review and approve the plan.
LaFreniere does not anticipate that Macomber Hill Road will be repaired before the winter. She said that if the town can reopen Woodman Hill Road, coupled with Route 133 reopening, access on Macomber Hill Road will be easier.
With each new rainstorm comes a feeling of anxiety, waiting to see if the temporary fixes will hold or not.
Right now, the town is just starting the process for reimbursing repair expenses for the May 1 storm, which were estimated around $75,000. The costs for the June 29 storm are estimated at $7.8 million dollars and the first meeting with FEMA for that storm took place Friday.
Initial estimates the week of the event were over $4 million, but continued damage assessments kept increasing that estimate. The costs will continue to fluctuate as FEMA and the town work through the process of validating damages and approving expenses.
Through the FEMA disaster declaration process, 75 percent of approved expenses are reimbursed from FEMA, 15 percent from the State, and the town has to match the final 10 percent. LaFreniere said that some of the town’s administrative costs could potentially be part of that match.
It is important to note that the FEMA funds are a reimbursement after expenses are approved, so the town must still figure out how to cover costs for the day-to-day repairs.
Jay has maintained a healthy undesignated fund balance to accommodate for fluctuations and issues with the Androscoggin Mill, one of the town’s major employers and taxpayers, LaFreniere said. This year, given the ‘double-whammy’ of the closure of the mill and the massive flooding, the select board had to balance using the undesignated fund to offset taxes and to cover road repairs. The town has also explored the possibility of taking out a short term loan from Androscoggin Bank, which handles the town’s banking, until the disaster reimbursement funds are available. LaFreniere hopes that will not be necessary.
Working through this process has been eye-opening, LaFreniere said. A disaster declaration is incredibly complex, and it was not something she had any real training on. When the storm event came in, dumping inches of water over the course of just a few hours, the town’s crews were struggling to keep up, but LaFreniere wasn’t sure what they needed for resources or help. The staff at Franklin County Emergency Management Agency called, but she didn’t know what to ask them to do; now, she has a much better idea.
Documentation is key with a disaster, but it is also one of the hardest things to coordinate. Trained, competent teams need to travel every road in the impacted area and document damages, road conditions, GPS locations, and specific measurements for the FEMA reports; at the same time, public safety and road crews work to keep the community safe by barricading roads, establishing detours, and handling emergencies. When major highways are impacted, public safety concerns extend far beyond the town and its residents to include commuter and commercial traffic.
Costs for emergency services personnel, public works personnel, materials for repairs, and bills for contractors must be tracked, along with the hours worked on each damaged road and infrastructure. LaFreniere said that the town’s public works director has been meticulous in tracking the time and work at each location, which helps as the town navigates this process with FEMA.
Resource management is another critical component with navigating a disaster event. As one example, LaFreniere said that the town has a stockpile of barricades and traffic cones that they believed were sufficient for the town’s needs, but the excessive amount of damage meant they ran out of barricades and resorted to dropping loads of dirt in the roadway to block traffic. One of these piles remains at Macomber Hill Road, reportedly saving several drivers from crashing into the deep washout.
LaFreniere acknowledged the major impact the flood and subsequent damage has had on the community, adding, “For the most part people have been very, very understanding.”
With three federal disasters in Franklin County over the last ten months, these storms continue to affect families, businesses, towns, and the local economic system, with uncertainty about the future. For Jay, the aftermath of June 29 will last through the winter months and into next year.
Total roads impacted: Bean Road, Beedy Road, Begin Road, Canton Mountain Road, Davenport Hill Road, Davis Road, East Jay Road, Hutchinson Road, Keep Road, Look Brook, Lomie Rivers Road, Lucarelli Road, Macomber Hill Road, Masterman Road, Morse Hill Road, Old Jay Hill Road, Plaisted Road, Skyline Drive, Soules Hill Road, Spruce Mountain Road, Walker Hill Road, Woodman Hill Road, and Main Street (sewer).