Black Mountain continues to seek FEMA assistance 8 months after Tropical Storm Fred

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Birds congregate near a gazebo at Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain after the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred passed through Western North Carolina on Aug. 17, 2021.

Black Mountain was hit by Tropical Storm Fred on Aug. 17. Eight months later, the town is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct repairs.

Black Mountain's greenway and cart bridge at the golf course were damaged in the storm. It can take as long as a year for towns of Black Mountain's size to access relief, according to Ron Roth, FEMA external affairs officer.

"The federal government does have its bureaucratic red tape," Roth said. "We try to help ease that."

FEMA in Black Mountain

With FEMA being responsible for handling taxpayer money, Roth said proper documentation by the town plays a key role in proving reimbursement eligibility. Timesheets, work orders and rental agreements, for instance, can help keep the project on track by proving accuracy.

Town Manager Josh Harrold communicates with FEMA every week. So far, Black Mountain has been fully funded for the greenway repairs and is working on securing funding for bridge repairs from North Carolina Emergency Management.

"The town makes the repairs up front - they pay for it - then they submit documentation for reimbursement," said Keith Acree, communication officer for N.C. Emergency Management.

Harrold said the greenway repairs cost $51,000 and the bridge will likely cost another $30,000. 

Harrold said the work was evaluated by FEMA but the reimbursement was insufficient, leading the town to contest the appraisal with the help of local appraisers.

"The funds have increased because it's just not possible to do it at the amount they estimated it at," Harrold said. 

Part of a picnic table at Lake Tomahawk is submerged after remnants of Tropical Storm Fred passed through the area Aug. 17, 2021.

In addition to the greenway and bridge, FEMA has been helping with the restoration of the Veteran's Park stream. Harrold said the project was estimated to cost $345,000 but has only been funded at $160,000. 

Harrold said the town will turn to grants and, if necessary, dip into the general fund to come up with the difference. 

How does FEMA work?

Roth said the state government sets up an applicant briefing where it explains the relief program to applicants throughout the state. The government then sets up a form for the federal government to reimburse various programs. 

After a natural disaster such as Tropical Storm Fred, a project manager from FEMA will evaluate the damage and determine eligibility and the scope of work. The manager figures out the total cost for each project and submits it in a proposal.

"Other things that we look at are on the mitigation side," Roth said, providing an example of a flooded culvert project. "This is an 18 inch culvert and the applicant is telling us it's washed out every year. Maybe if we made it a 24 inch culvert it wouldn't wash out."

Once the project data has been compiled, FEMA sends it to a consolidation resource center for final review. When the proposal is returned, FEMA distributes the funds to the state, which then gives it to the town. 

Currently, Roth said FEMA has a 90-10 cost share, meaning if a project is $10,000, the agency will cover $9,000. He said normally, FEMA has a 75-25 split, but given the amount of recent disasters nationwide, the share was changed to lessen the burden on local municipalities.

Acree said the state's emergency management department is happy to see the change in cost share as it helps state and local government. 

"There's no cap on the amount of assistance that's provided to any applicant," Roth said. "As long as it's an eligible applicant and eligible project, the sky is the limit."

Proper disposal and evaluation create challenges as FEMA puts together projects. Looking for historical significance and environmental concerns when rebuilding factors into how the agency manages its projects.

Ensuring municipalities follow best practices keeps places like Black Mountain from excessive spending by accidentally falling into the same pitfall as other disaster areas. 

Flood water tops the banks at Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain after the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred passed through Western North Carolina on Aug. 17, 2021.

According to Roth, applicants must show the work is eligible for reimbursement, meaning it must have had to have been caused by Tropical Storm Fred. 

"Complexity and documentation are the keys," Roth said. 

Disasters become more frequent

Learning from other disasters, Roth said the agency continues to look for mitigation opportunities and best practices whenever it conducts repairs or provides relief. 

In North Carolina, Acree said disasters have been more frequent and intense in recent years as sea levels rise and the climate changes. Utilizing FEMA programs for mitigation and relief, Acree said municipalities throughout the state have taken preventative measures as well as recovery assistance consistently.

"We've seen hurricanes becoming more intense, weather storms, we've seen more flooding," Acree said. "That's been the general trend for the past decade or so."

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.