Irene’s lessons, Irene’s legacy

A year after the flooding, the final box score for Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont is still being tallied.

We know 3,500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

We know that 20,000 acres of farmland were flooded.

We know 500 miles of state roadways and dozens of bridges were torn apart.

We know seven lives were lost due to the storm.

The final cost of damage to homes, farms, businesses, and public property could eventually be as high as $1 billion. Nobody knows for sure.

And the hardest hit towns are still struggling. While more than a dozen businesses in Wilmington have rebuilt and reopened, 40 percent of the town's businesses remain closed.

There are still hundreds of open disaster relief cases around the state, nearly 300 of them in southeastern Vermont alone. The stoic Vermont habit of saying, “I'm alright. That other fellow over there needs help more than me,” kept many from applying for aid.

The emotional toll of the storm can never be fully tallied. The feeling of safety and security that was ripped away from so many people will take a long time to return.

Then there is the specter hovering over everything - the possibility that another Irene will happen again soon, due to climate change. With data pointing to Vermont seeing more extreme weather events in the coming years, can Vermont towns whose settlement patterns have traditionally been near rivers survive more wild weather?

One year later, we understand if people are sick of talking about Irene. But before the memories fade, we want to remember that, at the worst of times for Vermont, we saw Vermont at its best.

The teamwork between the workers of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, augmented with highway crews from other states, the National Guard, and local contractors was amazing. They all performed the impossible, and restored full access to all the major roads damaged by the storm within three weeks.

The utility crews from Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power quickly restored electric service under impossible conditions. Their prior planning and preparation shaved days off the rebuilding effort.

Volunteers offered their services all across the state almost as soon as the flood waters receded. The reticence shown when it came to accepting help didn't apply to offering help. The speed of the recovery astounded outside observers, but for Vermonters, it was just doing what was what necessary and right for their friends and neighbors.

We saw the generous, resourceful, resilient, never say die spirit of this brave little state of ours in days following the flood. There is still more to do before our state is truly whole again, but one year after Irene, we can say truthfully that Vermont has come a long way, and that we did it together.

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