Still waiting, moving on, still more to do

Gov. Shumlin commemorates Irene anniversary, some people have other goals

Artists, town officials, politicians, and media-types escaping the heat of a late-summer sun stood in the cooling shadow of the Whetstone Studio for the Arts on Saturday morning.

Many of the visitors left their houses still under repair, drove down patched roads with gleaming guardrails, and walked across still-sandy yards, to stand by the building rehabilitated by owner David Parker after Tropical Storm Irene's floods tore through it last year.

Irene barreled through Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011. According to numbers from the Vermont Recovery Office, the storm affected 200 towns, leaving 45 with severe damage. It hit 3,500 homes, displaced 1,405 households, and killed six people, two in Windham County.

On the one-year anniversary, Gov. Peter Shumlin kicked off a four-day series of Irene commemorations in some Vermont communities hardest hit by the storm, among them the Windham County towns and villages of Bartonsville, Brattleboro, Wilmington, Stratton, and Jamaica.

Shumlin spoke about how far the state had come since Irene through the heroic work of volunteers, neighbors, and town officials. He said much of the recovery efforts were due to the early generosity of Vermonters and “strangers from out of state.”

He honored community members and town officials with signed Vermont Strong license plates. Shumlin also asked that no one forget the six people killed by the storm. Two of the dead included Ivana Taseva of Shtip, Macedonia, who died in Wilmington, and Anthony Doleszny in Brattleboro.

More needs to be done, said Shumlin.

Irene's devastation did not hit the state evenly. While some watched their homes wash downstream, others weathered the rain damage-free. Vermonters' individual experience with recovery also mirrors these two ends of the spectrum.

“We are the tale of two states,” said Shumlin. “There are those who didn't get hit that bad by Irene. That group has moved on. Then there's the other group whose wounds are still fresh. They're frustrated, demoralized, and financially strained.”

According to the Vermont Recovery Office, 7,000 Vermonters applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for individual assistance.

Shumlin said that 700 Vermonters with the toughest of the tough cases are still waiting for assistance. The state has set up the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, commonly called “the fund of last resort,” to help.

“As we commemorate Irene, let's use this opportunity to recommit to those still in pain,” he said.

For people still waiting for assistance and sick of dealing with red tape and bureaucracy, Shumlin said, “I am frustrated, you are frustrated, we are frustrated.”

“But,” he added. “Be sure to turn this frustration into action.”

The governor urged Vermonters to buy a Vermont Strong license plate, which helps fund recovery. He said that the state needs $10 million to meet the unanticipated expenses of recovering from the disaster, and the sale of 50,000 plates would raise $1 million.

“Let's rededicate ourselves to the mission that is not yet accomplished,” he said.

Shumlin pledged to continue to “hammer” on the federal government to ensure Vermont receives all the assistance it is entitled to.

The state will not take a “no” from FEMA as a final no, and is working with people to appeal any application FEMA turns down, he said.

Shumlin also highlighted the Legislature's work. Lawmakers passed two recovery provisions. For towns that can attribute to Irene an increase in their Grand List of over 3 cents per $100, the state will pay the difference. For homeowners who lost their homes, the state will match 25 percent of FEMA's buyout to homeowners.

Shumlin said the state is also pushing FEMA to pay for increasing the size of undersized culverts and bridges that backed up during Irene, compounding the flooding. FEMA traditionally pays to replace only the infrastructure that existed before, not improvements.

If the state just puts back what was broken in the first place, he argued, FEMA will only find itself right back here after the next disaster.

In a separate interview, Shumlin said that his hopes for the tour were to deliver on a promise: to give back as much as possible to the people who suffered damage from Irene. Going forward, he hoped to make the state better prepared for the next storm.

He said the state had an opportunity to be a leader in moving people from “addiction” on oil, replacing fossil fuel energy sources with a balanced renewable mix of solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy.

As a “small-world state” with a lot of roads, Vermont also needs to rethink its use of cars and gasoline-powered transportation, said Shumlin, who wants to see more economic incentives in this area, along with charging stations for electric cars and more hybrid vehicles.

Shumlin said he has also been working with the governors of the other five New England states and Québec premier Jean Charest to bring higher-speed rail to the state. No one will ride a train that travels only 40 m.p.h., he said.

Shumlin said he was proud of how quickly the state rebuilt its buildings, bridges, and roads. But as governor, he has found it frustrating that “grief and pain you can't fix.”

“What we can never put back are the Vermonters we lost,” Shumlin said.

Irene, for the better, tore down the silos between state agencies like the Agency of Transportation and Agency of Natural Resources, usually on opposite sides of the river in a project, said Shumlin.

Shumlin added that he thought this change represents a structural alteration that will allow the state to operate smarter, faster, better, and cheaper.

Unmet needs

Not everyone viewed the governor's commemorative tour as a success.

David Parker, owner of the Whetstone Studio for the Arts, immediately after the Governor's visit felt that Shumlin had “missed an opportunity.”

Parker said he had wished the governor had spoken more about the Brattleboro community. He also wished that more conversation had gone toward looking at the possibilities in creating and taking new actions in the future.

Parker and his four-person crew took six months to repair the Whetstone Studio for the Arts building after Irene. They had to “cut off” the back portion of the building destroyed in the flood and to accommodate for the about 15 feet of missing riverbank.

The building also had to be lifted to repair the foundation. Parker, who lost woodworking equipment in the flood, also added more studios off the original building.

FEMA does not fund business recovery. “If anyone wants to have a nightmare, call the [Small Business Administration],” said Parker.

Parker used funds from flood insurance, two loans from the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), and one SBA loan to rebuild.

“I'm totally exhausted,” he said.

He said his survival instinct - gained from being the oldest of nine kids in an Irish family - kept him going.

The Whetstone Studio houses 13 studios and Parker's business. He said the next step is creating an outdoor space for people to enjoy.

Driving north to the afternoon leg of the Governor's tour, cars passed brooks of large rocks and sand. The waterways, sometimes with only rivulets of water between the stones, looked like fresh scars baked dry under the afternoon sun.

By the time Shumlin reached Stratton, the crowd had dwindled to three.

In Jamaica? One.

Paul Fraser, who serves as Jamaica's emergency management director, stood on the Town Hall steps waiting for the governor to arrive.

He said that Jamaica held its own commemoration events earlier that day, so some people might not have come to meet Shumlin, too.

For Fraser, Aug. 28, 2011 was a blur.

One year later, what stands out, he said, was people of Jamaica helping one another over the following days.

“The people rose to this occasion really well,” he said.

The townspeople did everything from feeding crews working excavating equipment to riding all-terrain vehicles to check on people isolated by the flood. More than a dozen riders helped carry 34 people and their pets out of cut-off areas.

Fraser said it was a blessing that the storm hit during the day when everyone was awake.

“If it had happened at night, we would have lost people,” he said.

The Ball Mountain Brook that runs through town washed away four homes and a road, he said.

While Fraser was waiting, Selectboard chair Lexa Clark stopped by. When she learned that Shumlin was coming, she said she was leaving. She did not want to be at the “political” event staged during an election year, she said just before speeding away in her vehicle.

Fraser put Clark's response in context. Shumlin's visit seems more political than about the people, he said, wondering where the governor was six months ago.

“We're not happy with politics,” Fraser said. “Politics have been slowing things down.”

Fraser said that four homeowners had been told that things would be done to replace their houses in March. Months have passed, and still nothing has been done.

The state and FEMA argue about who is doing what, said Fraser, and townspeople struggle to keep abreast of rules that keep changing.

Fraser has also observed that every time FEMA assigns new representatives to the town, the new FEMA person reinterprets the regulations.

When Shumlin arrived, Fraser accepted the Vermont Strong license plate, saying that the honor wasn't about him.

“I just happen to be the one standing still [today],” he said.

Shumlin and Fraser spoke about the town's frustrations.

FEMA paperwork has posed a lot of issues, said Fraser. When filling out the papers on the washed-away homes, Fraser said, he didn't know he needed to use the phrase “substantially damaged” to get FEMA's attention.

“We don't know if they're damaged,” he said, laughing. “We haven't seen them. They're gone.”

“Eventually, you'll get there but you've got to appeal it,” said Shumlin.

“We are flat out just trying to tread water with this stuff,” said Fraser. “Nobody's got the answer.”

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