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(Re)building a better Wilmington

Residents share ideas for town’s long-term recovery

WILMINGTON—Under the fluorescent lights of the Deerfield Valley Elementary School gymnasium, people take yellow adhesive notes scrawled with suggestions and stick them onto FEMA posters circling the gym.

Displaying topics like Natural Resources, Infrastructure, and Historic Village, the posters ask one underlying question: What does the community want for its future Wilmington?

A team of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) specialists opened the town’s Long-Term Community Recovery (LTCR) process to a packed gym last Tuesday.

The team of eight specialists guided community members through the beginning stages of the process, which FEMA uses to help towns rebuild after devastating disasters like Tropical Storm Irene, challenging residents to “think big” and provide their boldest ideas for the town’s future.

On Aug. 28, 2011, Irene flooded downtown Wilmington, washing out roads and swamping buildings. The flood level and damage surpassed the previous records set during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

The eight FEMA specialists hail from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Louisiana, and Colorado.

According to FEMA’s website, disaster recovery occurs in phases starting with helping disaster victims with food, housing, and clean water. After the initial disaster response, the community starts to clear debris and rebuild.

LTCR addresses the needs of communities that might need specialized assistance to recover if, like Wilmington, they were hit especially hard by disasters.

“Specialized assistance may be needed to address unique needs that are not satisfied by routine disaster assistance programs. It may also be required for very complex restoration or rebuilding challenges,” writes the agency on its website.

“It may also be required for very complex restoration or rebuilding challenges. Community recovery addresses these ongoing needs by taking a holistic, long-term view of critical recovery needs, and coordinating the mobilization of resources at the federal, state, and community levels.”

A successful LTCR program comes down to the community itself, said Thomas Rounds, the LTCR specialist leading the FEMA team.

“This is not a top-down effort,” Rounds said. “The drive and energy [for LTCR] really comes from you all in this room.”

The FEMA staff will collaborate with Wilmington to create the town’s vision and recovery goals, said Rounds. The two main principles guiding the process are that it be community-driven and project-focused.

Rounds explained that “project-focused” endeavors are those that have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

“The recovery plan is yours, not ours,” he said. “[The goal] is to build back quicker and better.”

Seeking input

Rounds said the community would use the ideas from the night’s meeting to refine and prioritize future rebuilding projects.

Selectboard Chair Thomas Consolino said that the FEMA team had worked in Wilmington for six weeks meeting with the board and economic development consultant Bill Colvin to prepare for the Jan. 17 meeting.

The LTCR process comes with a four-month timeline.

January and February will encompass defining the town’s vision and identifying rebuilding issues. February will entail further refining the community’s goals and developing projects.

Rounds anticipates the program to complete by March, with the final plan published in April.

He said a town, not FEMA, initiates the LTCR process and stressed that Wilmington invited the FEMA team.

Rounds said people should understand that FEMA does not come to the LTCR process with a checkbook. The agency will, however, help the town find other resources for its projects, such as grant money or investors.

The community will decide which projects will best serve Wilmington and debate the details, Rounds said. For example, does it make sense to rebuild the fire station in the flood zone?

It’s important the community stay engaged with its long-term recovery plan, Rounds cautioned.

With a slight smile, Rounds added, “So all grousers, this means you too.”

Huddling up

After Rounds’s introduction, the audience divided into groups: historic downtown, natural resources, community development, housing, health and human services, and infrastructure.

The groups, which became committees before the night ended, brainstormed ideas and finally presented three priorities to the entire audience.

The infrastructure group highlighted resolving the bottleneck where the river enters the village under the Route 9 bridge.

During Irene’s flooding, the rushing waters from the Deerfield River hit the choke point created by the riverbanks narrowing under the downtown’s primary connection point for the east and west sides of town. The structure also sits on the primary east-west artery between Brattleboro and Bennington.

Eventually, the floodwaters gushed over the bridge and into the village.

Wilmington resident Gary Henry suggested excavating the area under Dot’s Restaurant, if its owners decide against rebuilding, and then lengthening the bridge to relieve the pinch point. Another group member suggested turning the bridge into a drawbridge.

The community development group suggested developing Wilmington’s year-round economy and highlighting the area’s arts and agriculture.

Other suggestions on the table included replacing Dot’s Restaurant, extending the village’s sidewalks, retaining young people, building senior housing, and developing a 24-hour urgent care facility.

By the meeting’s end, most of the five committees had scheduled their respective next meetings.

As the meeting’s finale, Rounds announced the results of an informal survey listing the two words participants used to describe their vision of the future Wilmington.

Using the website Wordle, the FEMA team plugged the survey answers into a “word cloud.” The software then generates clouds — designs with the words sized in proportion to the number of times they were used, which helps bring visual clarity to their relative importance to the community.

The audience’s top five words: prosperous, quaint, healthy, relocate, and vibrant.

The Jan. 17 meeting represents the beginning of LTCR, Rounds said. People only have to ask to become involved.

Anyone with questions about LTCR or who wants to participate may contact the Wilmington town offices at 802-464-8591.

“Put your boots on,” Rounds told the audience. “We’ve got some work ahead of us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #136 (Wednesday, January 25, 2012).

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