Complaints about FEMA mingle with a salute to heroes at Bartonsville bridge

To start his statewide tour of towns most affected by Tropical Storm Irene on Saturday, Gov. Peter Shumlin chose the site of the former Lower Bartonsville Covered Bridge.

“I came here first, because this is where it started,” he said.

The Bartonsville Covered Bridge was built in 1870 and is the main link to the village of Lower Bartonsville. Record flooding on the Williams River caused by Irene on Aug. 28, 2011, swept the bridge off its abutments and carried it downstream.

A temporary one-lane metal bridge is in its place until the covered bridge is restored and returned to the place is had been for more than 140 years.

Shumlin honored Bellows Falls Fire Chief Bill Weston and Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake for their work during the storm, but both Weston and Lake were quick to credit other town employees, particularly in the Highway Department, for assisting police and fire crews at the height of the flooding.

Both Lake and Weston received “I Am Vermont Strong” license plates signed by Shumlin.

“This is going to go in a prominent place,” said Weston as he displayed the plate proudly. “It's ironic that I was going to head downtown to get one of the licenses this week.”

Overshadowing Saturday's appearance by Shumlin is the still unresolved matter of who is going to pay for the cost of restoring the bridge.

Rockingham Selectboard Chair Thom McPhee said that the town has received “a $1 million disappointment” from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT).

The town recently learned that the VLCT insurance policy will cover only $230,000 of the repair costs, leaving the town responsible for $700,000.

“VCLT told us to go to FEMA for the rest,” said McPhee.

Rockingham Municipal Manager Tim Cullenen said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency “reimbursed us for $20,000 of the $470,000 bill for debris cleanup which we paid from our [bridge repair] fund, which now has a zero balance.”

Cullenen said he appreciated that the Shumlin administration has been “pushing FEMA hard” to get all the money that the state is due for repairing storm damage.

“I think we're headed in a good direction,” said state Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls. “[State Rep.] Carolyn Partridge and I are working really hard in Montpelier to get support [for issues here in Rockingham].”

On Saturday, Shumlin reassured those who are still wading through red tape and federal bureaucracy.

“We have all been frustrated,” he said. “But know that you are not alone. If you need to appeal a FEMA decision, we will be with you every step of the way.”

Shumlin also acknowledged the new reality that Vermonters will be dealing with in the coming years.

“It's no coincidence that [in 2011], we saw four major storms - the biggest blizzard I've ever seen in Vermont. Then the floods in April, and more flooding again in May, and then the flooding in August.”

Pointing to the huge forest fires in the West and record-setting drought in the Midwest this year, Shumlin said that “climate change is happening as a result of our increasing carbon footprint and oil addiction. We are seeing the effects of our own destruction.”

That's why, he said, he is trying to convince FEMA to help rebuild flood damaged areas in a way that acknowledges that global warming means bigger storms that happen more frequently.

“We're trying to get FEMA to understand that spending $1 billion dollars now for bigger culverts [that won't plug up so easily with debris] will save later,” Shumlin said. “When they won't spend money for debris removal that can effect villages and towns downstream, we're saying to them, 'Are you crazy?' We're going to get more storms. This is now a pattern in Vermont.“

The ceremonies at the bridge site also acknowledged the six people who were killed by the storm.

“I'm very happy [Shumlin] remembered the Vermonters we lost,” said Partridge. “This is a solemn and introspective time, and a time to be joyous and proud - solemn remembering the people we lost in Vermont, and proud of the Spirit of Vermonters and for how far we've come.”

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