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SLO County awaits FEMA approval to begin construction on hundreds of sites damaged by the 2023 winter storms 

Cecchetti Road in rural Arroyo Grande has been closed for almost a year due to damages from the 2022-23 winter storms.

Nea Wilson, an Arroyo Grande resident, told New Times that the detours have caused dangerous driving conditions.

"The closure has created a lot of issues for everyone who lives in the area; traffic on Branch Mill Road and Huasna Bridge has increased exponentially," Wilson said. "Farm equipment, deliveries, and service trucks occasionally are delayed, and there have been minor fender benders due to the excess of traffic."

click to enlarge FLOOD DAMAGE During the 2022 winter storms, debris rushed through the Arroyo Grande Creek and caused significant damage. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • FLOOD DAMAGE During the 2022 winter storms, debris rushed through the Arroyo Grande Creek and caused significant damage.

Wilson expressed frustration over the closure, and SLO County Public Works Engineer Garret McElveny told New Times that the frustration is here to stay as a fast-moving construction project isn't likely.

"We are working through the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] (FEMA) coordination and environmental permitting currently, and the earliest construction would begin is by summer 2025, but it may be more likely in the summer of 2026," McElveny said. "Construction is looking to last between four to six months."

Cecchetti Road isn't the only project that will take years to complete. SLO County awaits FEMA's approval for funding projects at hundreds of sites that were damaged during the 2022-23 winter storms while also fighting against a clock that could prompt even longer delays if this upcoming winter is as wet as the last.

Joshua Roberts from SLO County's Transportation Division told New Times that the county currently has 832 damaged locations, and 165 of those sites are considered to need "permanent repairs."

"A 'permanent repair' is basically a repair that isn't an emergency but something that needs to be done to restore the road to the original condition, such as there may be a partial lane blockage and some of the embankment has eroded," he said.

Roberts said FEMA approval takes such a long time and can be difficult to apply for because each damaged site needs to be submitted into the correct funding category to be considered. County staff is in the process of submitting requests for all 832 damaged sites, but that takes time.

"Every project goes into the FEMA system, and they have to determine the project's eligibility," he said. "For the most part, all the sites that were damaged in the storm will likely become eligible, and that means once it's determined as eligible, FEMA will participate financially."

Roberts said that once a project has been approved by FEMA, the work starts immediately by examining the sites and determining which ones have the least damage so they can quickly complete those first.

"Out of the 165 [permanent] repair sites, it really comes down to which project is the easiest," he said. "When I say easiest sites, I mean sites that have a lower cost threshold, little to no permitting requirements, and are straightforward repairs in terms of FEMA approval processes, hold no environmental barricades, and we don't have to purchase new land from property owners to fix the road. So while FEMA is probably the most important element, it's not the only element when we're looking at doing these repairs."

Roberts said the reason larger construction projects can take years to complete is because staff needs approval from a variety of agencies that deal with environmental and health factors.

"We have 832 damaged locations and we've repaired 650 of those through FEMA's expedited process, but for more complicated projects, almost all of those require some kind of permitting through either the Army Corps of Engineers or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," he said.

While almost every storm-damage-caused construction project in SLO County goes through FEMA so the county can receive funding, Roberts said if—for some reason—FEMA doesn't approve a project, the county will still move forward with its completion because community members are waiting on and anticipating those repairs.

"FEMA's just a partner in getting these [projects] done, and we'll be moving forward regardless, with or without them," he said. "Obviously, we would want FEMA to be included, although FEMA does add a level of complexity [in terms of waiting long periods of time for approval] but it also makes the projects affordable in that we become eligible for reimbursements."

If FEMA can't relieve the cost burden for some projects, Roberts said the county will take funding from various sources such as the general fund reserves to pay for construction expenses. On the plus side, that makes beginning construction faster, especially with the possibility of a rainy winter season on the horizon.

While construction on these projects will continue into the winter season, Roberts said the team usually tries to focus on preventing flooding and waits to continue repairs in the spring.

"We've been out doing construction since the rains hit, and since winter is coming, our priority is to defend the sites against further decay," he said. "However, most of our work in the winter is about maintaining our culverts and drains to make sure water can flow and we don't end up with road washouts."

Overall, Roberts said repairs on the remaining critical construction sites will probably take several years to complete.

"This means we'll have [to work on] about one location a week to stay on track," he said. "We will most likely group sites together so there won't be just one a week, but I'm saying on average you're looking at one construction project a week—and based on past experience working with FEMA, to get through everything is going to be a three-plus-year process." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Samantha Herrera at [email protected].

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