The causeway serves not only as a river crossing but also as a community gathering place, with a farmers market, antique and flea markets, and food vendors. Photo by Alex MacLean.

ME - There’s federal money to shield communities from disasters. Why isn’t Maine getting more of it?

Maine, with its thousands of miles of serpentine coastline and communities highly vulnerable to flooding and storms, would seem the perfect candidate for FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants, an umbrella of awards aimed at making towns and cities more resilient to natural disasters and less reliant on federal funding when calamities do strike. But communities aren’t applying for the funding — and when they do, few are successful.

When Professor Tora Johnson and her University of Maine at Machias team were preparing an application for a federal grant to help fund a seawall and berms to protect low-lying downtown Machias from floods, it seemed they had a project that fit perfectly with what the Federal Emergency Management Agency funders wanted.

The community, which straddles the Machias River just before it widens into the mouth of Machias Bay, is the county seat and a service center for the 32,000 residents of far-flung Washington County, who come to get gas and groceries, attend medical appointments, send packages, eat out and socialize — “the Shire town,” as Johnson put it in an interview last year.

With much of downtown sitting below base flood elevation, Machias is also extremely vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. Parts of downtown are underwater more and more often, as sea levels rise, and storms hit more frequently and more intensely.

Earlier this month, the Maine Department of Transportation announced it would close a major causeway in the town for repairs, after divers doing a routine inspection found “voids” underneath the dike, which has seen increased flooding in recent years.

The proposal, dubbed the Machias Waterfront Resilience and Renewal project, aimed to change that. The community had already conducted public hearings, surveys and an economic analysis, and gotten some money to raise the elevation of its boat landing.

But when Johnson and her colleagues went to apply for a Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant from FEMA, a program designed to fund projects to protect communities and minimize the damage from natural disasters, they found a problem.

As part of the application process, FEMA asked applicants to use a modeling software called Hazus to estimate the risks Machias faced from flooding and what it would cost to help it recover. The software is meant to help communities estimate the cost to replace a road or rebuild a wastewater treatment plant — information they can then use as part of their application.

There was just one problem: As far as Hazus was concerned, Washington County effectively didn’t exist.

“There were outrageous problems,” said Johnson. “Like there were literally no roads in Washington County.” The smallest sewage treatment plant in Hazus was valued at $10 million, said Johnson — three times the size of the one in Machias. “And on and on and on. There are zillions of these issues, where it’s built for a much larger community.”

So Johnson and her team spent a year and half designing their own risk-modeling software, using the 550-page Hazus manual as a guide, inputting information specific to Washington County. They then had to apply for special permission from FEMA to use the software as part of their application.

“The technical bar is so high,” said Johnson. “It’s really, really tough for us little communities to do this.”

Machias did eventually get the money, with FEMA contributing $200,000 toward the project in 2018 — one of the two Maine projects that got the grant funding that year.

But the experience Johnson and her team underwent is typical of barriers communities around the country face when applying for federal funding, said Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has analyzed the FEMA grant program.

“It can be really challenging for small communities to apply for these federal grants,” said Weber. “The application process itself is pretty complicated — there’s a lot of requirements you have to fulfill, there’s a lot of eligibility that you have to understand.”

The Hazard Mitigation Assistance program was created decades ago to help communities both recover from natural disasters, and beef up planning and infrastructure to blunt the effects of future floods, fires and storms. Funding for the program has fluctuated, as have the different grants it doles out (the grant Machias applied for has since discontinued and replaced with another with a slightly different name.)

The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant, which started in 2020, is by far the largest of FEMA’s non-disaster grants, with $2.1 billion in competitive funding available nationwide during the 2022 grant cycle.

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