On August 16, 2023

Ludlow motel owners, flooded for the third time, seek buyout

 

By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

LUDLOW — The Timber Inn Motel is among roughly a thousand Vermont businesses damaged in last month’s historic flooding. Propelled by the raging Black River, floodwaters rose over 6 feet at the motel, wrecking guest rooms, machinery and outdoor structures.

Three weeks after the deluge, the nine flooded guest rooms lay stripped of their contents, though a few steel bed frames remained standing on a heavy layer of silt. Swaths of yellow paint were peeling off the walls. Some doors had fallen off their hinges. The furnace, washer and dryer sat broken; same with the ice machine.

A ramp that once led to the innkeeper’s office next door was leaning on the motel building at 45 degrees. A musty smell permeated even the upstairs rooms that had been spared from the sewage-laden floodwaters. A wooden staircase leading to the second floor had been ripped away and ended up by the swimming pool.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” said Glenn Heitsmith, who runs the motel, which he and his wife have owned since 1994. The business was flooded twice before, including during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. “The thinking was: I gotta get out of Dodge.”

But the couple haven’t been able to get out, despite multiple attempts. They say the government bureaucracy involved has now complicated their efforts to move on from the July calamity, which caused at least $700,000 in damage to the motel and their adjacent home. The flooding and damage this time around, they say, has been worse than that of Irene.

Since Timber Inn was flooded in 2019, the couple has been trying to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy out their property. It’s located in an area with a high risk of flooding — the Black River is a stone’s throw away — and they didn’t want to make repairs for the third time. They certainly didn’t want to jeopardize their safety.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD after Tropical Storm Irene,” Heitsmith said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “I dealt with it as you can deal with these things.”

The couple asked for nearly $1.5 million in 2020 through FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, the agency’s online database shows. Heitsmith said the amount included the cost of the required building demolition.

The grant request was not approved, nor was their second attempt in 2021.

The couple tried again last year under FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant Program — which is partly funded by the state government — and received the green light. They were waiting for the formal approval to come through when, on July 10, Ludlow momentarily became the epicenter of a statewide storm.

Some parts of town got nearly 8 inches of rain within a day and a half, which caused a massive mudslide downtown, spawned millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and a state park, and temporarily cut off land access to and from the center of town.     

“We were planning to take the buyout and then figure out that next stage in our lives,” Heitsmith, 62, said. “We thought we’d have a little more time, and it would be a little more leisurely process, not get out with your life at 3:45 a.m.”

Third borrowed home

Heitsmith and his wife, Donna Heitsmith, had built a two–story, three-bedroom home beside the motel in 1995, where they raised three children who are now adults. The residence also housed the Timber Inn’s office. They had to evacuate the premises, along with their three motel guests, in the wee hours of July 10. The motel has since been closed for business.

The couple and their 2-year-old Labrador retriever, Quinn, are now living in their third borrowed home while they wait for the buyout process to be completed. They’re striving to move on –— such as figuring out if they should stay in the Northeast and what they should do for a living — yet they’re stuck until the buyout is finalized.

Glenn Heitsmith said personnel with the Ludlow town government, which is involved in the FEMA buyout process, estimated they’ll receive formal approval in six to eight months. Meanwhile, they’re grappling with several big issues: Would the state allow the Timber Inn to be rebuilt? Should they do so, knowing the location is susceptible to flooding? When they lose their temporary home in November, where would they live?

On the motel’s second floor is a one-bedroom apartment they’ve been renting out and which has been vacant since March. They can remove the mold that has developed since last month’s flooding and make other fixes, with some FEMA financial assistance.

But once the buyout payments are made, the program requires that existing structures be demolished and the land be deeded to the local government, with its use restricted to open space in perpetuity.

“We have no other choice than to fix up a place — that’s going to be torn down — with federal dollars,” Donna Heitsmith, 60, said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

If only the government bureaucracy moved faster, she said, her family wouldn’t be facing so much uncertainty right now. “They have put us in such a terrible, terrible position,” she said. “I just feel like, to the powers-that-be, 

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