Tally of storm damage begins

Totals determine if area will get aid

Scituate suffered the heaviest losses as last week’s nor’easter pounded the South Shore. Four hundred homes were damaged and storm surges breached a seawall. Residents are looking to the government for help in rebuilding, but aid is not certain to come. Scituate suffered the heaviest losses as last week’s nor’easter pounded the South Shore. Four hundred homes were damaged and storm surges breached a seawall. Residents are looking to the government for help in rebuilding, but aid is not certain to come. (By Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2011

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In the wake of last week’s severe coastal storm that drove hundreds from their homes and robbed thousands of power, state and South Shore officials are putting their heads together this week to see whether the region qualifies for federal disaster relief.

In Massachusetts, infrastructure damage caused by the storm must total at least $8.25 million to be eligible for federal assistance, according to a population-based formula. But despite the severity of the Dec. 26 nor’easter, which dropped more than 14 inches of snow on some communities, caused shoreline flooding from Quincy to Plymouth, and damaged hundreds of houses in Scituate alone, federal assistance is far from certain.

Infrastructure damage must also reach population-based figures on the county level for communities to qualify for federal disaster relief — $1.5 million for Plymouth County and $2.1 million for Norfolk County. And while residents and local officials can point to plenty of storm-brought pain, not all damage qualifies.

The nor’easter caused flooding and power losses up and down the coast, but Scituate, where 400 houses were damaged (including two lost to fire), suffered most. Storm-driven waves also damaged homes in Marshfield, carrying rocks through the windows of some shoreline houses. Flooding also affected Hull and Quincy, where the Fire Department evacuated 30 people from the coastal neighborhoods of Merrymount and Post Island, others left home on their own, and nearly 1,000 households lost power. All together, more than 8,000 homes and businesses lost power to the storm on the South Shore.

While Scituate residents look for government help to rebuild damaged homes and officials throughout the region point to damaged seawalls and beaches, state emergency officials and local leaders planned to meet soon to see what damage estimates add up to and determine whether they look high enough to qualify the state for federal disaster relief. Following consultations, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, will send inspectors to look at specific sites and put preliminary dollar values on damage.

“We’re still in the early stages of getting numbers,’’ said Peter Judge, MEMA’s spokesman, after federal officials postponed a meeting originally scheduled for earlier this week.

But while federal disaster aid for “infrastructure repair’’ goes to roads, bridges, and culverts, a prominent component of the South Shore’s coastal infrastructure has not been considered eligible by policy makers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Seawalls are outside the normal scope of disaster relief,’’ Judge said. “They’re historical damage’’ — from cumulative pounding rather than a single storm.

That interpretation of disaster relief does not sit well with area legislators such as state Representative James Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat who represents both Scituate and Marshfield.

“We need to change a federal policy,’’ said Cantwell, who contends that US disaster law states that relief should be provided for infrastructure repairs needed to prevent flooding and property damage. “Seawalls do all these things, but are not reimbursed.’’

Cantwell sought to make that point last Thursday when US Senator Scott Brown and staff from Senator John Kerry’s office toured sites in Scituate where storm surge punched a 60-foot hole in a protective seawall. Marshfield’s seawalls also suffered breaches, as did seawalls in Quincy and at Plymouth’s Long Beach, where a longstanding wall protecting the beach parking lot was undermined.

Federal disaster aid policies have failed to meet South Shore needs in the past, said Quincy City Councilor Margaret LaForest, who represents the ward where residents were evacuated.

“What relief is there for Quincy?’’ LaForest asked. “The coastal infrastructure, the tide gates, the seawalls, are really in need of relief. The expense is too much for the city to bear.’’

While houses don’t fall into the sea in Quincy, the cumulative effects of coastal storms deserve attention as well, said LaForest. “Quincy never gets hit so hard it gets federal funding,’’ she said. “We’ve Band-Aided and Band-Aided. I’d love to see funding on coastal infrastructure, long-term solutions.’’

In Plymouth, where front-end loaders were working last week to restore the parking area at Plymouth Beach and dig debris from the swollen mouth of the Eel River, Town Manager Mark Stankiewicz called the storm “the worst pounding people have seen in a long time.’’

While local snow removal budgets also took a big hit from the storm, snow removal costs do not count toward determining eligibility for disaster aid, Judge said. Snow removal costs can be eligible for federal reimbursement only for historic levels of snow accumulation.

As for damage to homes, property owners can apply for federal disaster assistance if they live within an area covered by a disaster declaration. They must also file an insurance claim if they have insurance. If those two conditions are met, the Federal Emergency Management Agency states you may be eligible for aid if “you are not able to live in your home now, you cannot get to your home due to the disaster, or your home requires repairs because of damage from the disaster.’’

A state disaster declaration will depend on the results of consultations and damage inspections getting underway this week, Judge said. If it looks like “hundreds of homes’’ suffered serious damage — more than area flooding — federal assistance is more likely, he said.

Robert Knox can be reached at