MONTPELIER >> Gov. Peter Shumlin looks back on Tropical Storm Irene not with fondness for the destruction but admiration for the way it was handled.
"It was as bad a storm as any governor would want to confront," he said. "I'm really proud of the way Vermont responded. I'll never forget, we had some [National] Guard people from Carolina. A guy pulled me aside weeks later and said, 'I've gone into a lot of catastrophic storm areas, but I've never seen people like Vermonters. They don't wait for someone to come and do it for them. They just get to work.'"
The government collaborated with the private sector, nonprofit organizations, volunteers and communities in the rebuilding effort following the storm. Shumlin said "endless people with the goodwill to rebuild" helped Vermonters rebuild their state in better shape than the storm found it.
Irene also serves as an example for the future.
"Local Vermont communities and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns have partnered with our agencies to make sure we're prepared in emergency management," said Shumlin.
Shumlin said extraordinary progress has been made with Vermont's move to more renewable energy sources — the sector has created 17,700 jobs in the state and Vermont has 10 times more solar panels than it had before his governorship.
"Even with all our good work, just simply the carbon we've put in the atmosphere means many storms ahead. Vermont's got to continue to take this threat seriously because, unfortunately, there's more trouble."
Shumlin recalled two "pretty severe storms" in Vermont prior to Irene.
"For whatever reason, Vermont got whacked with three consecutive storms that spring and summer," he said. "We had already been in the muck."
He said businesses, farmland and homes were lost and there had been a lot of tragedy.
Irene came and caused damage so bad that a response was needed in the middle of the night.
"We saw it coming up from Brattleboro and started getting a sense things were really bad in Windham County. But I didn't have any sense it was going to be the toughest storm that's ever hit Vermont. It was a very frightening and painful time as we realized how hard Vermont was being hit," said Shumlin. "I'll never forget the call that we had to evacuate the state hospital."
His office went into "crisis management mode" right away, he said. The National Guard was called in.
Besides the loss of 34 bridges and 500 miles of state roads which left 13 communities isolated, there were six deaths.
"My team and I spent weeks getting into communities with choppers trying to get water and supplies to people who were in really rough shape, trying to get medical care to people," said Shumlin. "We said we were going to build better than Irene found us. I'm proud to say mission accomplished."
Federal and insurance money assisted with about $733 million worth of damage in Vermont. Vermont residents received about $117 million in federal aid. Altogether, the storm hurt 3,500 homes, 500 miles of roads, over 200 bridges, 11 town office buildings, five fire stations, several water systems and 90 public schools. Thirteen towns were isolated and 2,200 roads or bridges were washed away.
Shumlin touted the quick response to reopening bridges around the state while noting the "huge role" then-Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter played in the efforts.
"That year was a pretty extraordinary year in a lot of ways. It was a year of many firsts in terms of weather," Minter said. "We had extreme snow in February that year, record-breaking snow emergencies. Then we had record-breaking flooding in May. Lake Champlain flooded. Then in late may, we had the most extensive rainfall in central Vermont. That was all just preparing us for what came on Aug. 28."
Agency of Transportation employees were patrolling the roads throughout the day and into the night, making sure to post detours if roads were damaged. They were soon realizing roads weren't just getting damaged, Minter said, but destroyed.
Parts of Vermont were getting anywhere from 8 to 15 inches of rain.
"When you have that kind of severity in a mountainous region, the run-off in addition to the water itself, you get this velocity," Minter said. "This raging torrent. It ripped out homes and fuel tanks, and sent cars flying down the river."
The first mission was to reconnect all the 13 communities that were cut off. Three regional centers were established, with one in Dummerston. Minter said communication was restored to all those places within the first 48 hours after the storm. The next four months were spent putting roads back together and "making sure Vermont was open for business," she said.
Minter soon became Vermont's Irene recovery officer. She held the position for about 13 months.
"My job went from working on the state roads and working closely with the Federal Highway Administration to working with FEMA, homeowners, communities and people to help rebuild," she said. "We had a lot of interaction, you might even say battles, with FEMA. Many small towns like Wardsboro and Jamaica, FEMA was not agreeing with the release of federal funds for their projects. There were many negotiations and difficult ones, a lot of appeals to decisions they made. It was a huge job."
Rules associated with FEMA assistance were rewritten through Vermont's response to Irene. In the past, the organization would cover costs that would put bridges back in the condition they were in before the storm.
"What's the sense of that?" Shumlin said he asked President Barack Obama and the FEMA team. "We've had three climate-change induced storms hit us in the last three months. They're just going to get taken out again."
Sen. Patrick Leahy was another big help in the task. He was at his home in Middlesex when the storm came through and washed out a culvert in his driveway.
"My wife and I were pulling branches and weeds and stuff out of that for hours," said Leahy. "Then I was getting phone calls from around the state about what was happening and I was calling FEMA of course and others. I'd be on the phone for 15 minutes, then I'd pull branches for 15 minutes, then I'd be on the phone for 15 minutes. My staff was doing the same."
The next morning, Leahy said, was "a beautiful day" during which he met with Shumlin and the National Guard. They took a small helicopter and visited flooded areas of the state.
The only way into a lot of the towns was via helicopter, Leahy said, remembering a man shovelling out debris in a small store in Brattleboro. The place was covered in mud.
Leahy also recalled the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro being "badly damaged."
"In Wilmington, we see the tree right through the side of Dot's Restaurant. I ate at that place many times," Leahy said. "I used first-hand knowledge and what I was seeing and the photographs in the calls to the president and FEMA administrators."
Those pictures were blown up to the size of posters and shown on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., said Leahy. A metal bridge looked like a child's toy had been twisted. A farmhouse was moved from its roots just as easily.
Using his position on the Appropriations Committee, Leahy said he was able to get a lot more FEMA money to Vermont than would have been otherwise possible. He's the senior member. He said he helped see the removal of a $100 million cap for assistance to Vermont.
"I had to convince a number of agencies to give waivers. One was for the Community Development Block Grant program. Windham County and Brattleboro originally weren't even eligible because they're outside the areas hardest hit, Washington and Windsor counties," Leahy said. "I took money from everywhere we could get it and ended up with half a billion dollars. For a state our size, that's a lot of money."
Some funding came from the federal transportation budget while some came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Leahy said weeks bled into months as his staff and the government dealt with the destruction of the storm.
"We rebuilt fast, we rebuilt stronger," Shumlin said. "We developed resiliency strategies for future storms and we got a state-of-the-art mental hospital built in Berlin, 14 beds in Brattleboro and 10 beds in Rutland. We were operating out of a decrepit old building that didn't dignify the care that our mentally ill patients deserve."
Federal dollars were also used to build the state complex, which Shumlin calls the "most green, clean, efficient state office building at this point."
Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland said FEMA would cover 75 percent of a buy-out. The property owner would pay the rest. But CDBG and CDBG Disaster Recovery money came into Vermont and assisted with that 25 percent.
"The state really attempted to make those property owners whole again," said Moreland, who helped assist homeowners at 805 Western Ave. "They took a little while to get complete. Recently, it's been able to come down and get cleaned up. It was a gratifying project to complete."
The land must stay in its natural state now or remain as a green space, meaning no structures can go up again. The state had 141 buy-outs, according to Minter.
Brattleboro updated its hazard mitigation plan, like many other towns, after the storm. Instead of being an appendix to the regional hazard mitigation plan, Brattleboro drew up its own. That was the result of FEMA and its expectations, Moreland said. The plan identified threats and places that can be addressed to prevent future issues. According to Shumlin's office, 61 percent of Vermont's towns now have their own hazard mitigation plans.
Public infrastructure in Brattleboro saw about $2.5 million worth of damage. Culverts, roads and bridges were all part of the tally.
"We had damages to the wastewater treatment plant and its outfall pipe," said Moreland. "Flat Street probably had something like a foot of mud on it the next morning."
Minter, who served on Obama's task force on climate preparedness and resilience, said Vermont is seen as a national model for disaster recovery. She applauded the response.
"It doesn't happen everywhere, I can tell you, talking with leaders across the country," said Minter. "I'm just so proud of what Vermont is and can be."
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.