Saturday September 3, 2011

MONTPELIER -- Road access to Vermont communities once isolated by Tropical Storm Irene floodwaters continued to improve Friday and the number of people without electricity was dwindling, but an official said it could be years before the state's roads are back to their pre-flood conditions.

Once-closed sections of U.S. Routes 4 and 9 were open to emergency vehicles, and crews were continuing to improve the highways. Despite the progress, Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said people shouldn't get complacent.

"We know that we have hidden hazards out there, things we may not even know about yet," she said. "We're finding sinkholes in many locations. We're also concerned this weekend could add additional hazards."

Power outages, which topped 50,000 Monday morning, had been reduced to fewer than 1,000 by Friday afternoon, said Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Department of Public Service. "The utilities have done a fantastic job," she said.

Most of the remaining outages were in Central Vermont Public Service Corp. territory in Orange, Windham and Windsor counties, said company spokeswoman Christine Rivers. Most should be back on by Saturday night, but a few might remain in the dark, due to their roads being washed away or safety concerns caused by the flooding.

Less than a week after the remnants of Hurricane Irene dumped more than 11 inches of rain on parts of the state and caused widespread flooding, the National Weather Service was forecasting potentially heavy thunderstorms for southern Vermont on Sunday and Monday.


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People and volunteers continued to pour into the state.

About 250 National Guard members from Maine and West Virginia were on their way to Vermont where they will work to improve road access in the Mendon and Killington area just east of Rutland.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage said the Maine guardsmen are based in Belfast and Auburn. A half dozen Air Guard members from South Portland will provide communications support.

"Our neighbors to the west are in need of our assistance and the Maine National Guard is ready, willing and able to help," LePage said. "It is during these times of natural disasters that our service members rise to the occasion and give their support to those who need it most."

Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration and the Vermont State Employees Association announced an agreement under which state workers represented by the union -- many of them flooded out of their usual work stations at the state complex in Waterbury -- would volunteer to work wherever help was needed.

"If you're a switchboard operator at the Vermont State Hospital (in Waterbury), you're not going to be back at work this month," said Connor Casey, a VSEA official. "But you might be able to do something in another department." Patients from the state hospital were moved to other facilities when flooding forced it to close.

At the local level people continued their struggle to recover.

Kara Fitzgerald, 26, treaded carefully Friday across the rocks and mud that used to be her 10-acre Evening Song Farm in Cuttingsville, southeast of Rutland, where she and her boyfriend raised vegetables on the community supported farm.

On Sunday, Irene tore away most of the topsoil and subsoil leaving acres of rocks. "It went from a vegetable field to class 5 rapids," Fitzgerald said.

The farm was all but destroyed, but neighbors were helping out. Fitzgerald and her boyfriend, Ryan Wood-Beauchamp, were trying to raise money to continue their operation. The couple has 14 years to pay off the loan on the farm, and hope to lease farmland next year.

"We're still devastated and grieving, but we're running on the adrenaline of all the people who are supporting us," she said.

Next week Fitzgerald and Wood-Beauchamp are going to the Bennington Garlic Festival, where they'll sell garlic and show before-and-after farm pictures as a way to raise funds.

"I'm one of those stubborn people who never asks for anything. Now I'm ‘bring me money.' I can't farm without finance," she said.