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Leominster's Disaster Declaration Saga Comes to an End: The Timeline

A little over eight months ago, a significant flash flooding event took place in Massachusetts. This was one of a handful of floods that struck all around New England last summer. The September floods in Leominster, North Attleborough and surrounding communities were arguably the second most serious of the flood events in a soaked summer for New England. The saga of whether this qualified as a major disaster came to a close Wednesday, 247 days later.



All of this kicked off on the afternoon of September 11th, 2023, when a stalled cold front interacted with an extremely moist air mass. This led to very slow moving thunderstorms and torrential downpours across a portion of the region.


These storms dropped immense amounts of rain on a relatively small area across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Leominster saw over 9 inches of rain. Neighboring Lunenburg saw 7.26 inches while Fitchburg (next to both Leominster and Lunenburg) saw just 5.1 inches. This small area likely played a key role in whether or not a federal disaster declaration was necessary. Federal disaster declarations open up funds from the United States government rather than the state and/or city having to pay for all repairs.



On October 12th, just over a month after the flooding, FEMA officials toured the city of Leominster to assess damages. At the time, the city was still in the beginning phases of recovery. The city had reopened most roads, shored up two dams as well as get bridges and railroad tracks reopened.


Despite this, many private properties remained damaged. The home that was nearly swallowed by a sinkhole on Pleasant Street, for example, was still hanging over that sinkhole. At the time, the city said that over 1,000 had already filed for FEMA assistance.


Flood water pours into a sinkhole on Pleasant Street in Leominster on September 11th, 2023

On December 11th, three months after the floods, Massachusetts officially filed for a major disaster declaration for Worcester and Bristol counties. It often takes weeks or months after a major weather event to officially file for the declaration as the state, counties and communities affected need to compile the estimated damage costs. Residents and business owners in these communities are often given a certain amount of time to document damage to their properties and report them to the state so the state can create an estimate.


On January 7th, less than a month after Massachusetts filed for federal assistance, Rhode Island had a major disaster declaration approved for severe storms and flooding. This declaration was made on January 7th and covered events from September 10th to the 13th.


While this declaration covered flooding that occurred in the state on September 11th, it also covered severe thunderstorm and tornado damage (three EF1 tornadoes touched down in the state on September 13th). Massachusetts only dealt with the flooding rains, not severe thunderstorm damage. Each state must file for a separate disaster, so this declaration was completely detached from the one requested by Massachusetts.


On February 11th, FEMA announced its decision that Massachusetts would not be getting a major disaster declaration. The agency noted in a rejection letter that "the damage from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state." At the time, as many as 1,400 Leominster residents had already filled out applications for FEMA assistance.


Workers fix a sinkhole on Chestnut Street in Leominster

Leominster's mayor Dean Mazzarella stated that the city submitted a damage estimate report of up to $35 million. This number only includes damage in Leominster and doesn't take into account other communities hit hard, such as Attleborough. This estimate includes damaged homes, businesses, buildings, roads, bridges and railroad tracks.


Multiple leaders from Massachusetts immediately fired back at the decision, including congressman Jim McGovern, who called the decision "unacceptable and unconscionable." Whenever a major disaster declaration is denied, the state has up to 30 days to appeal the decision, something Mazzarella stated he would do immediately with Massachusetts' governor.



Just within the 30 day window, on March 12, Massachusetts officially filed an appeal of FEMA's decision. Massachusetts governor Maura Healey countered FEMA's claim that the damage was within the state's means to address, saying the needs "far outpace" what the state can provide. Healey wrote this in an appeal letter sent to both FEMA and the White House.


On Wednesday night, May 15th, the White House officially reversed the initial declaration denial, opening the door for federal funding for Worcester and Bristol counties. The decision came as many residents are still dealing with not only the repairs themselves, but also how to pay for them. The 1,400 applications already submitted will now be reviewed and New applications are being accepted.



This declaration covers funding for individuals and businesses. Federal funding for city projects remains under review, according to Mazzarella.


Applications can be submitted in multiple ways, but the fastest way, according to FEMA, is through DisasterAssistance.gov. Once an application is submitted, it is reviewed to determine if an inspection is needed to verify disaster-related damage. FEMA staff and inspectors may contact you to discuss your disaster-caused damage.


When a review is complete, a letter will be sent to the claimant stating whether it has been approved and how much assistance (if any) will be received. If an individual does not agree with FEMA's assessment, it can be appealed within 60 days.


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