BRATTLEBORO—Nine months after Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters inundated the low-income housing complex Melrose Terrace, Gov. Peter Shumlin presented residents with a Governor’s Certificate of Recognition.
“I’m incredibly proud of you,” said Shumlin during the ceremony held on Monday in Melrose’s community room.
He said the elderly and disabled adults who live at Melrose demonstrated “resilience and courage in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.”
Melrose Terrace, built in the 1960s, prior to most zoning rules, sits in the Whetstone Brook’s floodplain.
Taking no chances, the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA) evacuated all 80 residents ahead of Irene’s arrival on Aug. 28, 2011.
According to the BHA, Irene affected all 80 residents. Of this number, 60 residents experienced mild flood damage to their housing, and 40 residents’ apartments suffered extreme damaged. Five buildings at Melrose sustained the worst damage, displacing for months the 26 residents who lived there.
Immediately after the floodwaters receded, the BHA started rebuilding.
Disputes over permits and whether the damaged buildings surpassed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 50-percent marker brought renovations to a halt. After a successful permit appeal to the town Development Review Board, the BHA restarted repairs.
Nine months after Irene, the BHA anticipates the final repairs to be finished by early May.
Resident Rhea Rhodes accepted the certificate plaque on behalf of her fellow residents. She circled the room, showing the certificate to her neighbors.
“I love it here even more than I did when I left,” said Rhodes, holding up the certificate proudly.
Rhodes has lived at Melrose for two years. Irene’s floods displaced her for two months. She said her short nomadic life was not too hard. Rhodes and her little dog alternated staying with family and friends while she waited to return to her home at Melrose.
Irene changed Melrose, said Rhodes, but this change has a silver lining. According to Rhodes, the residents feel more grateful for Melrose and its community. She said that the residents, slowly, have started gathering again for functions, like a monthly community lunch.
Residents talk about the storm and support one another at these events, said Rhodes.
People have asked Rhodes if Melrose needs anything.
“We can’t really say we need a lot,” she said. “We’d like a lot.”
As he stood outside the community room before leaving for an event at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Shumlin said that Vermont has a long haul ahead. Still, he added, the state has pledged to rebuild Vermont better than Irene found it.
“There’s no better example of the resilience, determination, and pure patience of Vermonters than what you see at Melrose,” said Shumlin.
Shumlin said Irene reduced the residents’ possessions to “muck and mud.”
The residents, after condensing their possessions down to the most treasured few before moving to the smaller Melrose units, faced the challenge of rebuilding their lives without the irreplaceable items like family photos or letters taken by the flood.
“It’s heartbreaking and invigorating,” he said.
BHA Board of Commissioners vice chair Marshall Wheelock announced plans, at the April 17 Brattleboro Selectboard meeting, to move all Melrose residents from the floodway within a self-imposed three-year timeline.
According to BHA Executive Director Chris Hart, over the coming three years, the housing authority intends to identify one or two new housing development sites, design the complex, find funding, and have all necessary construction permits in hand.
The Brattleboro engineering and design firm Stevens & Associates has agreed to perform a six-month-long site analysis for Melrose, and a neighboring BHA property, Hayes Court.
The BHA has also formed a “stakeholders’ committee” which includes residents, people living in West Brattleboro, and officials like Town Planner Roderick Francis.
The BHA has also invited residents of the Glenn Park trailer park, located in the flood plain between Melrose and Hayes, to join the committee.
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) agreed to put $40,000 toward the first phase of the three-year process, which includes Stevens & Associates’ site analysis.
The VHCB had agreed to help fund a portion of the Hayes Court project, which included tearing down some of the buildings and constructing an assisted living facility.
When Irene hit, however, Hart called VHCB to say the Hayes Court project needed shelving while the BHA remedied Melrose. The VHCB later agreed to help fund the Melrose process.
Hart describes the three-year timeline as ambitious, but not unrealistic.
“The BHA recognized we have to address a pretty serious issue,” said Hart after the certificate ceremony. “We have no interest in putting this population in harm’s way.”
Hart said it’s too soon to know what shape the solution to the Melrose flood problem will take. Irene and the April 2011 fire at the Brooks House made a tight low-income rental environment tighter, she said.
“[But] we’re at that point where everything has to be on the table,” she said.
Hart acknowledged that the prospect of change or moving can feel unnerving for some residents. Still, she said, many of the residents have expressed relief that the BHA is working toward a solution.
It took a long time for the BHA to arrive at a point where it could think of the future.
Hart said that in addition to rebuilding Melrose and re-housing residents, the Housing Commissioners, Selectboard, and FEMA had to rediscover that they were all working toward the same goal.
Going forward, Hart planned to keep communication between the BHA and town open, including sharing minutes and notes from the stakeholders committee with Town Manager Barbara Sondag.
The BHA has to keep numerous regulatory plates spinning as it plans for a new housing development. As a public housing authority, the BHA answers to the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It must also fulfill state and town regulations.
Finally, Irene added FEMA to the mix.
“It’s just what we have to do,” said Hart about meeting the multi-layered regulations.
Although Hart doesn’t think it’s FEMA’s role to be happy or unhappy with BHA’s post-Irene path, she said the agency has come to understand that the BHA and its housing commissioners made a “realistic and compassionate” decision when they chose to rebuild the flood-damaged units.
“I give them [FEMA] a lot of credit for [supporting that decision],” she said.
FEMA has sent an employee to help the BHA fill out public assistance worksheets and is engaging the housing authority in a Long Term Community Recovery process.
“I never want to see a single resident go through this again,” Hart said.