A year after Irene, progress, challenges

Monday December 24, 2012

MONTPELIER (AP) -- From afar, most of the damage Vermont sustained during Tropical Storm Irene last year has been fixed, but almost 16 months after the epic storm inundated the state on a late summer day, many Vermonters and state government are still working to recover.

Some people who returned to their homes after the flood are starting to find mold or storm-caused foundation problems that are now showing themselves. Others are still working to find permanent housing after the flood forced them from their homes.

At the broader level, the state of Vermont is still working through the details of how to plan, design, build and pay for some of the biggest-ticket projects left by the storm, such as replacing the state office complex or building a new state hospital in Berlin after the antiquated structures in Waterbury were made unusable when the Winooski River overflowed its banks.

Taken together, the cost of those two projects could approach $150 million. The state is hoping FEMA will pay a large portion of that cost, but the amount is still in doubt.

"Irene, for me, is a story with many chapters," said Sue Minter, the state's chief recovery officer, a special position created in the wake of the storm to oversee the state's comeback. "I've learned a lot about the recovery process and a national understanding that it is a continuum, beginning with immediate response, moving to recovery and even following that, a phase of preparedness so you're always in this mode of recovery and preparing for the next one."

Recently, Minter's office has been sparring with FEMA about which affected property owners would become eligible to have their homes bought out by the federal government -- allowing the razing of the structures and giving property owners close to the full pre-flood value of their home. FEMA approved some, but rejected others; even for those approved, no money has changed hands yet.

But FEMA has helped pay for a series of case managers that work with the nine long-term recovery organizations set up in different parts of the state. Statistics compiled by FEMA show that since Irene hit on Aug. 28 last year, it has provided more than $166 million to Vermont.

Many small towns are still dealing with local infrastructure repair, such as damaged roads and bridges. The town of Jamaica had more than 84 repair projects while Chester had almost 130, Minter said.

Earlier this fall, the recovery groups were still getting 10 to 12 new cases a week from individuals.

"There are a lot of people who felt they could do it on their own and just finally admitted to themselves they couldn't and they didn't want to ever ask for help, but now they find themselves willing to," she said.

While the recovery work will continue for some time, Minter said she was planning to move back to her pre-flood job at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. She doesn't have a timetable for leaving. The recovery work and planning for the next flood will continue, but the chores will be passed to other state agencies.

"It's been a very, very moving experience," Minter said of her job helping lead Vermont's recovery from Irene. "I have been all around the state and as devastating as it can be and often so frustrating I continue to be inspired by our story. It's inspiring. It's what makes Vermont such a wonderful place. I really think our recovery is a unique Vermont story with strong communities, strong partnerships and collaboration."


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