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By the numbers

Report looks at the state’s progress two years after Irene

WILMINGTON—Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin released the state’s latest Irene recovery status report, “Irene, Reflections on Weathering the Storm,” during a remembrance ceremony held Aug. 28 at Memorial Hall.

The report quantifies the state’s recovery from Aug. 28, 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, and serves as the fourth and final written testimony from the Irene Recovery Office.

According to the report, in the storm’s wake, through July 30, 2013, nearly $1 billion in flood aid has come to Vermont through federal, state, local, private, and insurance sources.

“We wish to acknowledge all of Irene’s survivors, volunteers, [and] emergency management personnel, and all of the community leaders who have contributed to recovery,” wrote the reports’ authors. “You know know who you are and Vermonters will be forever grateful.”

The report was authored by Katherine Ash, interagency liaison for the Irene Recovery Office, and Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation chief, Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Tropical Storm Irene is touted as the worst disaster to hit the state since the Great Flood of 1927.

In the report, among photos chronicling Irene’s devastation, Shumlin recalled his view from a National Guard helicopter.

“Then-Adjutant Gen. Michael Dubie and I looked down on more than 500 miles of state roads destroyed, 200 bridges damaged or ripped off foundations, more than 60,000 homes and businesses without power, 1,000 homes destroyed. Families were grieving lost property and, in some cases, lost loved ones,” recalls Shumlin in the report. “Entire towns were cut off from the rest of the state.”

The storm failed to bring Vermont to its knees, he said.

Instead, the state seized the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild “stronger, more resilient, and less vulnerable to the wild weather that climate change has wreaked upon our world.”

By the numbers

The storm cut 13 communities off from supplies. A reported 3,500 homes and businesses were the worse for wear. Of these were 500 mobile homes. Mobile homes are especially vulnerable to severe weather, the report notes.

The Irene report calculates that more than 60,000 homes and business lost power, with greatest concentration of damage in southeastern Vermont.

Contamination of public water supplies led to water shortages in parts of the state.

The report quotes Joe Flynn, director, Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, on his drive through Newfane on Sept. 3, mere days after the flood.

“Piles of debris towered over our vehicle and outside this house was a woman with a small card table,” said Flynn. “Every couple of minutes an arm would extend from the second floor window and hand her something.

“She would wipe it off, look at it and place it on the little table,” he said. “After the pace of our work and the shell shock of what we were seeing, it simply brought you to tears.”

According to the report, the storm submerged 20,000 acres of farmland. Damage to about 500 miles of state roadways and about 200 bridges, including the 140-year old Bartonsville Covered Bridge in Rockingham, made travel difficult.

The storm washed away some 1,000 culverts.

“The [Bartonsville] bridge always meant home to me,” Susan Hammond told The Commons in January.

It was Hammond who’d shot a 20-second video of the covered bridge sliding into the raging Williams River, now familiar to many after it went viral online.

To her, Bartonsville without a bridge wasn’t Bartonsville. This vision of home kept her committed to the long process of replacing the bridge, which reopened earlier this year.

Most of Irene’s damage centered on transportation infrastructure, the report’s authors said.

To date, the state and towns have received more than $575 million in federal aid for repairs to transportation infrastructure.

Of the 12 towns with the costliest damage to bridges and roads, four are in Windham County: Jamaica, $4.9 million; Halifax, $4 million; Grafton, $3.2 million; and Newfane, $2.3 million.

Flooding swamped the Waterbury State Office Complex, which houses the Vermont State Hospital. Workers and emergency responders helped relocate 51 hospital patients.

The Brattleboro Retreat was one of the hospitals across the state to welcome patients from the Vermont State Hospital during the storm.

Irene also displaced the state Emergency Operations Center, temporarily leaving the towns relying on the EOC without much official information.

In the end, 225 of Vermont’s 251 towns reported damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was winding down from May 2011 flooding, said the report. When Irene hit, the agency reactivated, deploying about 500 reservists.

The Vermont Air National Guard sent 300 members to deliver supplies to towns isolated by the storm.

Agency of Transportation (AOT) emergency crews repaired more than 500 miles of roadway in less than four months, the report noted.

Long-term recovery for homes

Neale Lunderville, Sue Minter, and Dave Rappaport all served stints as Irene recovery officers under Shumlin, organizing and mobilizing recovery efforts.

Nine Long-Term Recovery Committees formed to help survivors through the long haul of recovery. Private philanthropic and community organizations also rose to aid survivors.

According to the report, in early 2012, Vermont became the first state to receive a FEMA Disaster Case Management Program (DCMP) grant to help hire case managers to assist the LTRCs in their work with individuals.

“It is expected that up to 100 cases will remain after August 2013 as a result of complexities including intricate grant programs, home buyouts, and a real lack of resources,” said the report.

According to the report, almost $50 million in federal funds, state funds, loans from the Small Business Assistance to Individuals and Families, and funds for disaster case management went into rebuilding Vermont’s Irene-struck homes.

Of the 705 individual cases opened by Disaster Case Managers, 522 have been closed, said the report. Of 513 home repair projects, 88 remain active.

Owners of mobile homes met unforeseen challenges when the storm flooded 226 mobile homes, destroying 133 of them, according to the report.

Tri-Park Cooperative Housing and Glen Park mobile home parks along the Whetstone Brook took huge hits.

About 7 percent of the state’s housing stock is in mobile homes. Of homes affected, about 15 percent were of the mobile variety, said the report.

Also according to the report, the location of many mobile homes, and their relative susceptibility to water damage, translated into these home owners “disproportionately impacted by Irene.”

Moreover, it’s rare for mobile home owners to also own the land beneath their lodging, so they weren’t necessarily covered by all the assistance programs other homeowners were.

Lawmakers and state agencies cooperated to develop new legislation and programs to help mobile home owners. The state introduced a program to condemn damaged mobile homes, paving the way for owners to reach an additional $1 million in FEMA Individual Assistance benefits.

Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott assembled a team of public and private sector partners to dispose of 83 flood-destroyed mobile homes — an expense not covered by FEMA or insurance — at no cost to homeowners and without tapping tax dollars, the report said.

Next steps

When the Legislature returned to the Statehouse in January 2012, Lunderville presented the report, entitled “Irene Recovery Report: A Stronger Future.”

The report outlined six areas for long-term recovery: supporting Vermonters affected by the storm; ensuring economic recovery and resiliency; fostering community recovery; rebuilding roads, bridges, and rail; managing environmental impacts of the storm; and preparing for future disasters.

The latest 2013 report highlights lessons learned: rivers need their space; the state must inventory and better understand its vulnerabilities; and that out of crisis comes opportunity.

The report also identifies the millions of dollars in federal and state aid that rebuilt roads, homes, and municipal infrastructure.

State, local, and regional planning has started to change to include preserving flood plains to give rivers space to safely spread out during possible future flooding, said the report.

In the win column for 2013: The state broke ground on a new state employees’ complex in Waterbury, and a new 25-bed psychiatric facility in Berlin rose to help replace the Vermont State Hospital.

The repairs and improvements at the Waterbury State Office Complex and Berlin facility, will be the largest construction project ever undertaken by the state, said the report, which credits the federal government as a “strong and invaluable financial partner” in the undertaking.

The price tag for the Waterbury complex, the Berlin facility, upgrades to other regional mental health facilities, and renovations to house Agency of Natural Resources at National Life is estimated at $198 million.

“There will certainly be future disasters,” the report reads. “Even as this report goes to print, two new federal disasters have been declared in Vermont since May 2013.”

“Perhaps Irene has helped prepare us for ‘the new normal,’” said the report. “Vermont stands strong and ready, confident in our collective ability to weather the storm and recover from whatever comes next.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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