NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- It looked like a hard summer rain -- intense, but seemingly harmless. Dangerous winds predicted by forecasters never materialized. But as the rain continued to fall, hour after hour, brooks, streams and rivers continued to rise. The water turned more violent by the minute. Now, one year later, many Vermonters are still struggling to put their lives back together from the destruction caused by the angry, relentless flood waters of Tropical Storm Irene.
"People have been using the word celebrate, but you can imagine why I'm not using that word," Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a recent interview just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the devastating storm.
The state has made extraordinary progress in its effort to recover, Shumlin said. About 500 miles of road have been rebuilt. Dozens of bridges have been fixed or are under construction, he said. And yet, too many Vermonters are still struggling in various ways to cope with one of the worst natural disasters to strike this small but proud state.
"Really, we're a tale of two states right now -- those who were directly affected by Irene and those who were not. Those who got hit so hard continue to face emotional and financial challenges that are extraordinarily difficult. I hope we can use this anniversary to recharge our batteries as we ensure that we're meeting our promise of not leaving anyone behind until we've done everything that we possibly can to help them get back on their feet. We'll never make them whole, but we've got to do better than what we've done so far," Shumlin said. "We've got a lot more work to do and there's still a huge unmet need out there."
For George and Diana Davis, who one year ago watched the Roaring Branch carry away a house they had built by hand, the governor's sentiment is an unfortunate, stark reality.
"I think that's pretty accurate, because people that weren't affected by it it's like, ‘OK, now it's tomorrow, it's another day.' They just go on with life, whereas, people that were affected like us, it doesn't just go away," George Davis said. "I think that's probably accurate."
Land-locked Vermont, like its neighboring New England states, watched for days as Hurricane Irene churned up the eastern seaboard. Historically, there had been plenty of bad storms, Nor'Easters in particularly, that had dumped excessive rain or snow. But could a hurricane, normally confined to Florida and the Gulf states, and sometimes the east coast, really impact the Green Mountain State?
Technically, no; it wasn't a hurricane. Irene arrived as a tropical storm. Unfortunately, though, storms are classified according to wind speed, not rainfall. It was the relentless rain that wrought destruction, and what Irene will undoubtedly be remembered for generations from now. As much as seven inches of rain fell Saturday into Sunday in and around Bennington.
That water gathered in Vermont's mountains and eventually made its way into the valleys -- directly into the inhabited towns and villages along rivers and streams, built up by previous generations of Vermonters.
"As the day went by, there wasn't a lot happening. We all talked about how the meteorologists were wrong again," Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said. "And then the rain just didn't stop and the storm started to devour parts of Bennington."
By Sunday morning it was clear that waterways were rising -- and fast. Stunned onlookers gathered along County Street as the Roaring Branch transformed into a dark, angry shade of brown. Boulders began rolling down river like beach balls, along with propane tanks, trees and other debris the river had already grabbed hold of upstream.
Then a blue sedan appeared, bobbing along like a child's Matchbox car in the furious water. It slammed into a flood wall just ahead of the Brooklyn Bridge. The car, captured on video, would soon hit YouTube and embody the severity of the storm.
Local police and firemen were called to action. The Brooklyn Bridge, like others in the area, was in danger. As debris piled up against piers, the bridges began to shudder and sway, a strange and unsettling feeling beneath one's feet. They were quickly closed off to the public.
Concern for covered bridges grew as water began to reach up to their red, wooden sides. The old boards creaked and groaned, but local covered bridges stood strong, unlike others across the state that were washed away.
A Route 9 bridge spanning the Roaring Branch in Woodford was also washed out, a 10-foot section collapsing. A picture of Doucette peering over the edge of the collapsed roadway, snapped by the Banner, was used by publications across the country and world as an example of Irene's destruction.
The collapsed bridge isolated the small, Woodford community. But locals would soon use their ingenuity to construct a wooden bridge, strong enough to carry ATVs, that would allow passage into Bennington and the food and supplies they would need. Eleven days later the state was able to reopen the bridge.
In Bennington, concern grew among local officials about the stability of the flood wall along County Street. Sink holes began to open up along its side, indicating it had been compromised, and water was getting underneath it.
"You could actually kind of feel the ground vibrate there and part of the earth just started to dissolve," Doucette said.
Town highway workers moved quickly to fill the holes, ensuring that hundreds of residents on the other side of the flood wall would remain safe.
Police, firemen and town officials managed the storm well, Doucette said. "What seemed like absolutely nothing all the sudden turned into a major incident," he said. "It seemed to go in slow motion. It was not chaotic. Everybody seemed to be doing what they were supposed to be doing."
Elsewhere in the state, reports that everyone was hoping to avoid began to trickle in. Vermonters were losing their lives in the storm. In all, six would perish.
As fast as the waters rose, so too did the offerings of assistance from those that could help. Shelters were assembled swiftly. Food and water, some from local, state and federal government and some from private citizens, was amassed and distributed to those in need. It was, Shumlin said, a display of the overwhelming sense of community that Vermonters feel.
"Irene is an example, nationally, about how people pulled together with a selfless and united spirit to deal with a disaster," he said.
It's what drove local and state governments to begin rebuilding quickly. "I say, only in Vermont, where we care about neighbors and we take care of strangers, would you see the kind of recovery, the speed of our recovery, from one end of the state to the other," he said. "We have everybody in a home -- not home, but at least in decent shelter."
In Bennington, an emergency shelter was set up that served more than 200 people at one point, said Doucette, who serves as Bennington's public safety director.
"It takes something like this to happen, but there was an outpouring of support in the community from people who wanted to help," Doucette said. "We came together pretty quickly and were able to offer services to other communities. I think it worked out well for what we thought was going to be nothing."
Bennington Select Board member Jim Carroll, who runs Jimmy Joe's Curbside Grill, brought his cart to the fire station and began feeding first responders. Natasha Garder, owner of the Crazy Russian Girls Bakery, also provided food, and turned half of her bakery into a hub for those that needed food, clothing and other necessities. Many other individuals volunteered their time to pitch in, too.
But there are still lingering needs, and questions remain over whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover expenses that local and state government expected. The state hospital in Waterbury, along with other state offices, must be replaced after extensive water damage. State officials recently said about $100 million that was expected is now an uncertainty.
In Bennington, town officials quickly moved forward with emergency work to remove debris from the Roaring Branch. The cost of the work, local officials said, was expected to be reimbursed by FEMA. But FEMA has rejected the $4 million reimbursement request, and the town is beginning the appeal process.
For individuals, including the Davises, FEMA has been just as unreliable. "We've talked with FEMA. They say they're going to reimburse, but there hasn't been anything that's come through. We haven't heard of anything positive, other then they talk and say that they're going to," George Davis said.
The Davises built the home as a place to rent, and a place where family members would occasionally stay. One year ago, they stood along Harbour Road and watched the Roaring Branch lift and carry the house downstream.
"It's a strange thing to stand up on that road and watch that house pick up and go down the river. That was a strange sight," George Davis said.
Diana Davis said she now fears water and worries whenever there is a storm. Irene was traumatic, she said.
"It was getting scarier and scarier as it was rising. I thought it was my last day, actually, because you just didn't expect it to happen. You just didn't expect it to get that bad. It just was coming up and coming up," she said. "It was just the feeling I had. I said, ‘This is it.'"
There were tenants from Florida in the home that Sunday. George Davis said he was growing more and more concerned throughout the morning, and eventually went to the home and asked them to evacuate.
"I said, ‘You've got to go and you have to leave now.' It probably wasn't 20 minutes after they left and the house was going down the river," he said. "If this had happened in the night where you heard raining but you didn't pay all that much attention to it, it could have been tragic, far more tragic than it was."
The house, still intact, lifted off the foundation and floated away. The Davises could only stare disbelief.
"That house just picked up off the foundation, just like it was when it sat there, and started floating down the river. It went down around and rested against the bridge. It was fully intact. We could have gotten a crane, picked it up, and brought it back home, literally. But, then a big, huge tree came down the river with a whole root system on it. Huge thing. It hit that house and just smashed it to pieces. Literally, pieces," he said.
The Davises said they are still filling out paperwork and waiting for FEMA to follow through on the promises it has made.
"We just sort of face the reality that it's gone and there's nothing that we can do about that. Just hope that something does come through is basically how we've been facing it. We know that nothing is going to be done instantly. I realize that. But, it's a year now and it seems like in a year's time they could get at least some sort of a definite situation of what's going to happen," George Davis said. "It is frustrating because that house was, of course, a financial situation for us where we depended on the money from that house. We rented it. That was a big help, and of course now that it's gone, that's not there."
Despite their loss, and the uncertainty of FEMA's assistance, the Davises are continuing to display courage and strength, a sense of hope and positivity that Shumlin and others have come to call "Vermont Strong."
George Davis said he and his wife are moving forward and trying not to focus solely on their losses. In fact, they are refusing to let it hinder their daily lives, he said.
"I don't think life has changed for us in any major way, other than the fact that you think about that and what happened. It's a financial kind of devastation for you, because you depended on that house for money out of it, of course. Other than that, as far as our life goes, I don't think our life has changed. We just face the reality and hopefully in the future something will come through with it," he said.
"You can't keep crying about, that's for sure. It's not going to get you any place," Diana Davis, added.
The Davis's experience with FEMA and recovery is not atypical, according to Maryann St. John of BROC Community Action in Southwestern Vermont, the nonprofit agency at the forefront of assisting local Irene victims.
St. John said the need for assistance in Bennington County was quickly apparent. But resources lagged, and FEMA was slow to adapt to they systems in place in Vermont.
There was a lot of immediate disaster recovery, but at that time we didn't have the resources to begin to think about paying for major repairs to homes, for example. That came later when FEMA finally had a presence here. That took a little bit longer than anticipated because they were looking to work with county government and we don't really have a county government system," she said.
Instead, the state called upon local community action agencies like BROC. A list of 500 or so names was culled down to about 40 to 50 individuals that BROC would assist, said Matthew Proft, a long-term recovery case manager with the agency. The agency is still working at getting issues resolved, he said.
"The out look of individuals will vary greatly as you go door-to-door. The people that we're dealing with have had some trauma related to Irene and I think for a lot of them, there may be a frustration in light of being a year out from that. I think here in Bennington County we're further along because of the small numbers that we've had to deal with and the resources we've been able to put forward compared with the rest of the state," he said. "There's a lot of anxiety, still, related to how things are going to turn out for many. Those are the ones we should be focusing on, of course."
St. John said the rate of recovery for individuals is frustrating for those working to assist them, too.
"It's going slowly. Here we are at the one-year anniversary and the average person has got to be thinking, ‘Well, that must have happened months ago.' But, it didn't. We're still working with folks, and part of it is the application process, the late start with FEMA," she said. "When you start working with federal and state dollars, there are lots of requirements. It's all meant for the good but it takes time."
For Shumlin, Irene was just one example of a changing world due to climate change. Vermont must now focus on rebuilding with an eye toward more devastating weather in the future, he said.
"We now have the opportunity to ensure that next time we get hit by a storm of this magnitude, which I say because of climate change could not be far away, we're in better shape than the way she found us. We're building back smarter, stronger and safer," he said. "Almost every objective scientist has been telling us for some time that if we continue to emit carbons as we are across the globe we're going to have challenges like this. I think our opportunity in Vermont is to carefully and methodically make the investments that we need to make in both public infrastructure and private infrastructure," he said.
Shumlin admitted he is "not very good at looking forward." But, part of Irene's legacy should be that Vermont effectively planned for a climate change future.
"I hope that our kids and grandkids will say that unlike some other states that simply dealt with this as an isolated storm, Vermont had the wisdom to recognize that climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels is going to produce more ravaging downpours of water being delivered to Vermont in very short periods of time, and in that knowledge we rebuilt stronger and better to beat future storms. That's our opportunity now," he said.
More and more people are beginning to understand the challenges that changing weather patterns will mean for the state, Shumlin said.
"I think that Vermonters understand that the kind of freaky weather, freak storms as we call them, that I never saw as a kid growing up in Vermont, that most of us never saw, that this isn't just coincidence, that we have a challenge," he said.
As the one-year anniversary arrives, nobody is really celebrating. Much has been accomplished in the recovery process. But it remains a solemn day to remember what was lost.
"The thing that I always carry with me is the families and friends of the Vermonters who we lost. For me, as governor, you feel a tremendous responsibility and tremendous compassion and grief for the Vermonters that lost their lives trying to help other Vermonters," Shumlin said.
Proft said he hopes the focus on Irene during the anniversary will help boost the recovery effort. "I think the anniversary is a time to not so much celebrate as it is to remember, and also to redouble the effort to get Vermont back to its previous condition," he said. "I think it's a commemoration."
Any celebration should focus on the strength so many have displaced since the storm hit, St. John said.
"I think if we can celebrate anything right now it's resiliency. It's that people are hanging in there, that people are finding ways to cope, and to really move forward," she said.
Meanwhile, with a full year now gone by, George Davis said he looking to have some closure to his situation by the next anniversary.
"Our best hope for two years is if FEMA would come through with what they say they're going to do. That would be a tremendous help. That's kind of now where we are and what we're waiting for, to see what's going to happen with that," he said.
Shumlin said he is continuing to urge patience, and said officials at the local and state level will continue working to help recoup costs from FEMA.
"For every victim of Irene there is a different story to tell and different challenges. There's no such thing as a uniform response. The frustration that people who lost everything are facing is that FEMA is a slow, federal bureaucracy that does things differently than we do in Vermont," he said. "So, I'm urging people, where possible, to preserve their patience and work together with us to get as much as we can, as much as we deserve, from FEMA."
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