Millions of dollars have been raised for Vermont flood recovery. Where has the money gone?

By ERIN PETENKO

VTDigger

Published: 12-06-2023 10:52 AM

In the more than four months since this summer’s devastating floods, Vermonters and out-of-state donors have poured millions of dollars into relief efforts organized by statewide nonprofits, local volunteer groups and crowdsourcing platforms such as GoFundMe.

With hundreds of entities receiving donations, there’s no easy way to track how all the money raised for flood recovery has been spent. But those involved with some of Vermont’s most significant fundraising efforts say a communal and hyperlocal approach is actually the goal.

“I don’t feel like in any way that these decisions on funding are ours to make alone,” said Holly Morehouse, vice president for grants at the Vermont Community Foundation.

The foundation is behind the Vermont Flood Response & Recovery Fund, which has collected more than $11.7 million in donations so far — making it the largest nonprofit relief effort focused on this summer’s flooding.

With the help of a 170-member advisory network to share on-the-ground observations, the foundation has sent funding to an array of nonprofits and other organizations, from libraries to mental health agencies to community gardens to legal service providers.

Morehouse, like others involved with relief efforts, emphasized the need to get an initial pool of money out the door quickly in the days after the disaster.

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Representatives of several organizations said they sought to work around — and complement — the federal aid available. As of Nov. 22, about $23.8 million in federal aid had already been distributed to individuals and households for flood damage, but there are limitations — such as a lack of direct grants to small businesses, rather than loans — that spurred targeted fundraising efforts.

At the same time, representatives of some local organizations told VTDigger they were concerned about geographic disparities that have cropped up in the relief effort.

One of the most successful fundraising initiatives in the state is the Montpelier Strong Recovery Fund, which met its goal of $2 million for downtown business aid — while the Barre Community Relief Fund, located in a neighboring hard-hit community, has not come close to meeting its $1 million goal.

“I do see that there’s some giving disparity, but I don’t hold that against Montpelier,” said Jonathan Williams, a board member for the Barre fund and a state representative. “I just wish that funds were more equitably deployed.”

And with climate change making extreme weather more frequent, there’s also the question of how far charity can go to meet the needs of hard-hit populations. Fundraising organizers said that philanthropy can and should play a role in climate change mitigation — but it shouldn’t be the only player.

“We’re gonna need every dollar,” Morehouse said. “We’re gonna need all of it. We’re gonna need every idea, every dollar, every person, every agency, every nonprofit organization, every leader. Yeah, we’re just gonna need it.”

The big picture was also the small one

This isn’t the first time the Vermont Community Foundation has helped the state through a natural disaster. It organized a similar flood fund after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and some of the collective memories of those times live on in the organization’s staffers, Morehouse said. It also coordinated a Covid-19 Response Fund in 2020.

This previous work helped inform the foundation’s immediate response to this summer’s flooding: work with the governor’s office, state agencies and Vermont’s congressional delegation to begin coordinating information and preparing a response, according to Morehouse.

The foundation identified the hardest-hit communities, along with particularly impacted groups, such as homeowners, downtown businesses, farmers and service providers, she said. Then it leaned on its partnerships throughout the state to figure out exactly where the money should go.

“(Our) efforts are deeply grounded in partnership and coordination at multiple levels: at the state level, our federal partners, at the regional level, and at the local and hyperlocal levels,” Morehouse said.

At the earliest stages of recovery, “phase one,” which mostly took place in the weeks after the flood, the grant-making strategy was focused on “moving dollars quickly,” Morehouse said. She estimated the foundation distributed $2.4 million during that period.

That included grants to the American Red Cross’s Vermont chapter, the Vermont Foodbank and community action agencies that immediately coordinated relief on the ground. It also included the Montpelier Strong Recovery Fund and the Ludlow-based Okemo Valley Flood Relief Fund, two local initiatives created soon after the disaster.

The foundation is now in “phase two,” with an estimated $6 million planned for distribution, this time to target recovery efforts. Morehouse said the foundation is also waiting to see how successful federal aid dollars coming to Vermont will be at driving recovery.

The application deadline for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to individuals and households for home repairs, rental costs and other needs was Oct. 31, meaning that some homeowners may still be awaiting FEMA decisions or going through the appeals process.

“No one leaves any federal dollars on the table,” Morehouse said. Once the state has exhausted all the recovery dollars, “we will be able to use these funds to make sure people can rebuild and repair their homes.”

She added that the fund has given $100,000 to Vermont Legal Aid to provide legal help to affected Vermonters.

In total, the fund has distributed about $5 million so far, according to the organization’s website. Data collected from the list of grantees shows that Washington County, which appears to have suffered the most flood damage, received by far the most aid, with more than $1 million given to organizations in the county.

The single largest chunk of funding, nearly $600,000, has gone toward the Farmer Emergency Fund and Farmer Flood Relief Fund to help support those who lost crops or whose equipment was damaged in the flooding.

Morehouse said the foundation is still planning a third phase, of roughly $2 million to $3 million, focused on long-term resilience efforts. It put together a watershed resilience group after Tropical Storm Irene to put together a portfolio of research and documentation on watersheds that still exists today.

Now, the goal is to create a network of community support that can move in immediately after a disaster and scale up or down, depending on the needs of a region.

Morehouse said one benefit of philanthropy is that it remains steady through different administrators, different parties controlling the state government and different events happening in Vermont.

“We can pilot things, take some risks, try something out — and also have that long view, that consistent funding, that consistent convening of partners (to) keep that conversation growing and moving forward,” she said.

Neighbor cities, far away in fundraising efforts

Tropical Storm Irene was also on the mind of Patti Komline on the day of the July floods. Komline, who at the time represented a portion of southern Vermont in the Vermont House, remembered how challenging it had been after Irene for small businesses, which do not qualify for federal grants — only loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

So she reached out to several community leaders, including Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action in Barre. Capstone agreed to help create the Main Street Recovery Fund, a statewide entity that provided grants of $2,500 to $10,000 to businesses affected by the disaster.

Komline said she was overwhelmed by the generosity of donors, including several from out of state, such as Community Bank, which contributed $100,000. In total, the fund has raised about $820,000.

Almost all of that money has gone to businesses to address physical damage or inventory losses in the flood. But Komline said the fund still has a small amount left, and organizers are deciding how to use it since it would be able to provide only about $450 per business. She said the fund’s leaders have considered using the money for marketing and tourism to encourage people to patronize small businesses.

There’s one place where the funds will not be used: Montpelier, the state capital and one of the hardest-hit cities in the flooding. That’s because the capital has its own fundraising effort in the Montpelier Strong Recovery Fund, Komline said.

“It’s a struggle going down the street and seeing the need, but this money was given to us to not use for Montpelier,” but for businesses elsewhere in the state, Komline said.

The Montpelier Strong fund has been quite successful, hitting its $2 million goal to give to Montpelier businesses and commercial property owners that suffered damage in the flood. About 150 entities have received grants from the fund, according to Sarah Jarvis, chair of the Montpelier Foundation, which created the fund in partnership with Montpelier Alive, a business association.

From what leaders of the fund have heard, the money has mainly been used for the direct cost of remediation, such as replacing floors and walls. Some used it to pay their rent or payroll, but the fund did not base its funding decisions on economic losses such as a shortfall in sales, according to Jarvis.

She said future donations are expected to go toward paid staffing for the Montpelier Commission on Recovery & Resilience, an organization formed after the floods to consider long-term changes to the city.

There’s an “arc of energy” to do this work in Montpelier right now, but that wouldn’t be sustainable to continue without the help of paid staff, Jarvis said.

Similarly, she noted that a lot of initial national attention about the Vermont floods has moved on. “It’s hard to remind them, ‘Hey we’re still here, still struggling,’” she said.

One organization that has struggled from that waning attention is the Barre Community Relief Fund. Williams, the fund’s board member, told VTDigger that community members who started the fund had to incorporate it from scratch, which meant they started fundraising relatively late in the process.

“We didn’t have an excellent nonprofit, like Montpelier did, that they were able to pull out of mothballs and get going again,” he said.

The funds provided $1,500 grants to businesses and individuals to use for any purpose. Williams said that leaders of the fund knew that FEMA aid could be difficult to obtain for marginalized members of the community, so individual grants were more flexible ways for Barre residents to immediately pay for rent, food or short-term shelter.

Yet the Barre fund has raised only $400,000 of its initial $1 million goal. Asked about the difference between the Montpelier and Barre efforts, Williams said he knew that Montpelier had been devastated and that the capital served as “a symbol for our state.”

But Williams pointed out that Barre has the lowest median household income in Washington County and had a high proportion of individuals affected by the floods. FEMA has received nearly 1,000 applications for aid from the 05641 zip code, which mainly covers Barre.

“It’s a climate-change-induced event,” he said. “And that’s just demonstrative of the fact that those communities that have the least are going to be impacted by climate change the most.”

Disclosure: The Vermont Community Foundation’s Vermont Flood Response & Recovery Fund awarded a grant to VtDigger to support its coverage of the disaster.