Owego Apalachin (OA) Central School District Superintendent Dr. Bill Russell recently signed off on an agreement with FEMA and the State’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services that provides sufficient additional funding to complete the district’s recovery from the devastation wrought by the flooding of September 2011.
The district held a press conference at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12 to make the announcement.
In the flood, half of the district’s buildings were substantially damaged, including the Owego Elementary School, the district’s administration building, plus OA’s maintenance and storage facilities. The high school also suffered major damage, as did all of the athletic facilities on the main campus.
“This new funding agreement will allow us to build new administration and maintenance / storage facilities on locations outside the floodplain,” said Dr. Russell, OA superintendent of schools.
He added, “We have been engaged in a long, often frustrating negotiation with FEMA for nearly two years over this issue. This new agreement, valued at $23,292,504, will fully fund the two new buildings, after deducting insurance proceeds received after those buildings were damaged.”
“It’s very gratifying that, following intervention at the very highest level of FEMA, we were able to reach a satisfactory conclusion that will provide full funding for our new buildings,” Dr. Russell added.
The school district is halfway through the construction of a new Owego Elementary School, a $70 million project that is 89 percent funded by FEMA and New York disaster recovery funds. The remaining funds for that project come from flood insurance proceeds, New York State Education Department Building Aid, and a small portion from the district’s capital reserve fund.
“We are especially grateful for the continued support and intervention from our two U.S. Senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand,” Dr. Russell said. “They have b’een strong advocates for our full recovery from the first weeks after the flood disaster.
“Brad Kieserman, FEMA’s assistant administrator for recovery, intervened and broke the logjam impeding our progress, and personally took responsibility to make sure we reached a conclusion that met our needs,” Dr. Russell added.
“In addition, Andrew Feeney, deputy commissioner for special projects, and Chris Holmes, chief of public assistance, both from New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, have been knowledgeable, persistent, indispensible advocates for us throughout this whole process,” said Dr. Russell.
“It’s very important to note that 25 percent of the funding comes from New York State, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to have the state fully fund the portion remaining after FEMA disaster recovery funding, with no requirement of a local share coming from the district’s taxpayers,” Dr. Russell said.
“Finally,” Dr. Russell continued, “Ron Simmons and his staff from Simmons Recovery Consulting have never wavered in their tenacious, strategic guidance as we worked to negotiate this settlement.”
The long delay in approval of the necessary funding for the two buildings arose because of a policy debate internal to FEMA. The issue involved whether or not FEMA should pay to relocate flood-damaged public buildings outside the floodplain.
With help from state officials, the district finally contacted Brad Kieserman directly, asking for his assistance to move toward a full recovery. Kieserman proposed using a provision of the Sandy Recovery Act known as Section 428 to authorize the funding.
“Section 428 allows for a negotiated settlement, with a funding cap, for certain projects,” Dr. Russell said. “They are known as pilot projects, and the goal is to reach a funding level that would allow the applicant (the school district) to complete its full recovery.”
After several days of discussions between a team of FEMA engineers and the district’s design and engineering team, both sides arrived at a consensus about an appropriate level of funding.
“Now that we have signed off on a Letter of Undertaking agreeing to this award, and are able to complete our environmental assessment, we’ll be prepared to go out to bid and begin construction,” Dr. Russell said.
“It can’t come any too soon,” he added. “I can’t stress too much how eager we are to have our district rebuilt. Our district and our community suffered greatly in the flood. It’s wonderful to finally be able to look forward to a full recovery.”