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Report Highlights Impact Of 2014 Flooding

Main Street in the village of Gowanda is pictured in May 2014 after heavy rains caused widespread flooding. P-J file photo

Between 2011 and 2021, Chautauqua County experienced four weather disasters resulting in the disbursement of more than $2.2 million in federal recovery funds.

The most assistance, $818,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, was received following a spring 2014 flood. That same flood impacted Cattaraugus County on a much wider scale, resulting in more than $10.3 million in federal assistance.

Information on federally declared disasters has been compiled into a report released recently by Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that researches ways to prepare for and adapt to climate change. It was started by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the catastrophic storm that slammed into the eastern U.S. just over 10 years ago, causing $62.5 billion in damage.

During the 11-year span documented in the report, 90% of the counties in the United States suffered a weather disaster.

The Associated Press in November reported that some counties endured as many as 12 weather disasters between 2011 and 2021. More than 300 million people — 93% of the country’s population — live in these counties, the AP said.

As noted by Rebuild by Design, the report only identifies federally declared disasters as there is no entity that collects and publishes state disaster declarations.

Researchers with the nonprofit had access to data from contractors who work closely with FEMA, allowing them to analyze disasters and payouts down to the county level. The report also looked at who is most vulnerable, and compared how long people in different places are left without power after extreme weather.

‘TREES FLOWING DOWN’

The largest storm to hit the area during that time, in terms of assistance received afterward, occurred the second week of May in 2014 as heavy rain pounded the Southern Tier. Gowanda, no stranger to flooding following a major event in 2009, and Silver Creek appeared to take the brunt of the damage.

“We had trees flowing down that had let loose from up in the hills,” then-Silver Creek Mayor Nick Piccolo told the OBSERVER newspaper in a May 14, 2014, article. “Some of the problem is there was 3 1/2 inches of rain in two-and-a-half hours in the hills. That is too much to handle, and the ballpark was flooded. … The water was up to the flag pole at the fire hall but it didn’t enter the building.”

Chautauqua County also received $350,000 in FEMA funds due to “severe storms and flooding” for a disaster declared in 2013; $370,500 for a “severe winter storm, snowstorm and flooding” in 2014; and $682,00 for “severe storms, straight-line winds and flooding” in 2019.

By comparison, Cattaraugus County had two disasters declared from 2011 to 2021, including the 2014 flooding incident. Altogether, Cattaraugus received $10,474,000 in federal assistance.

Warren and Erie counties in Pennsylvania had no federally declared weather disasters during the 11 years researched for the report. As such, no FEMA funds tied to recovery efforts found their way to Warren or Erie.

Forest County had one disaster, from Hurricane Sandy in 2013, but did not receive any federal assistance, the report indicates.

FUNDING QUESTIONS

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design and co-author of the report, said she was surprised to see some states are getting more money to rebuild than others. Partly it’s that cost of living differs among states. So does the monetary value of what gets damaged or destroyed.

“Disaster funding is oftentimes skewed toward communities that are more affluent and have the most resources,” said Robert Bullard, an environmental and climate justice professor at Texas Southern University, who was not part of the team that wrote the report. Bullard wrote a book, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection” in 2012 with another environmental and climate justice expert, Beverly Wright, about how federal responses to disasters often exclude black communities.

The new report seems to support that. People who are most vulnerable to the effects of these extreme weather events are not receiving much of the money, the report said. Those areas of the country also endure the longest electric outages.

“When disasters hit … funding doesn’t get to the places of greatest need,” Bullard said.

Another reason for the unevenness of funds could be that heat waves are excluded from federal disaster law and don’t trigger government aid. If they did, states in the southwest like Arizona and Nevada might rank higher on spending per person.

REPORT OVERSTEPS

The report was prepared by policy advocates, not scientists, and oversteps in attributing every weather disaster to climate change. That is inaccurate. Climate change has turbocharged the climate and made some hurricanes stronger and disaster more frequent, said Rob Jackson, a climate scientist at Stanford University. But, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to call every disaster we’ve experienced in the last 40 years a climate disaster.”

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