Nature’s fury hits home for state legislator

The scars — both physical and emotional — are constant reminders of what happened that morning

JAMAICA — It is hard to believe, but a year has passed since Tropical Storm Irene ravaged our community.

Aug. 28, 2011 is a day that will forever be etched in our memory.

We all remember the great tragedies of our lifetime. We remember where we were and what we were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Those who are old enough can recall, in vivid detail, the day when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

But unlike many events that we witness from a distance - on television, through the Internet, or in the newspaper - Tropical Storm Irene was one that touched many of us personally.

We all felt the rain; most were inconvenienced by road closures; many lost their homes, their businesses, and their personal possessions; a few lost their loved ones.

A year later, Irene is more than a memory. The scars - both physical and emotional - are constant reminders of what happened that Sunday morning.

And for those who were most directly impacted, the anniversary is merely a milestone in what has become a long, and sometimes uncertain, journey towards recovery.

* * *

As I travel down Route 11, through Londonderry, I am reminded of a front porch that was carried away by the floodwaters and left standing in the middle of the road. The porch belonged to an elderly couple whose home had flooded to the windowsills.

It was a heartbreaking sight, but within days, a local army of volunteers had gutted the home and cleared the debris. Leveraging a combination of funding from FEMA and the Stratton Foundation, the owners were back in their rebuilt, refurnished home by the end of the year.

On the other hand, two nearby homes - both damaged beyond repair - sit empty today, and they remind us of the work that remains. Fortunately, both owners are in new housing, but they are still awaiting word from FEMA on approval for a program that will allow the town to purchase and remove their old homes.

I recently spoke with a small-business owner who suffered substantial uninsured losses as a result of the flood. Shortly after the storm, the state of Vermont was able to offer a low-cost loan that helped put her back in business.

With the help of the loan, she was able to position her business for a particularly successful rebound this year. A year later, she is still paying off the loan, but hopes to have it closed out by the end of this year.

* * *

Of all the towns in the five-town district that I represent, none was harder hit than my hometown of Jamaica. We lost roads, bridges, and several homes to Irene.

My next-door neighbor, Beverly Landman, has a unique perspective. Her living-room window looks out at the bridge along Route 30 that collapsed during the storm. In the days, weeks, and months following Irene, she watched as remnants of the old bridge were removed and replaced with a temporary structure.

The destruction and rebuilding process is not unfamiliar to Beverly. At 94 years of age, she still remembers the 1927 flood, which took out the railroad that her father worked on but spared the homes on Water Street, where she grew up.

She was here for the 1938 hurricane, and her late husband was intimately involved in reconstruction efforts after the floods of the 1970s. History, it seems, has a habit of repeating itself.

But this time it was different. Homes that had withstood nature's fury throughout the 20th century were literally swept away by Irene, including four houses on Water Street.

Nobody in Jamaica was killed or injured, but the people whose homes were lost were left with a void that only they can truly understand. There is literally nothing to go back to.

Like the homeowners in Londonderry, and in other parts of the state, these families are awaiting approval from FEMA for a program that will allow the town to buy them out of their properties.

* * *

As I walk into the Jamaica village and cross the temporary bridge that spans the Ball Mountain Brook, I am reminded of that day, yet it still amazes me how a gentle trickle of water could develop into such a destructive force.

While we have much to be thankful for and can take pride in the many good things accomplished over the past year, it is all too easy to forget that this is not an easy time for those who were most directly impacted.

We will always remember Irene, but we must ensure that we do not forget our friends and neighbors who are still working their way out of the storm.

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