Monday January 28, 2013

WATERBURY -- Temporary offices and abandoned buildings mark the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene nearly a year and a half after it devastated Vermont, but repaired and newly built homes, a new bridge and other signs of recovery dot the state.

In Waterbury, where parts of town were under 4 feet or more of water after the August 2011 storm, the community celebrated the closing of Rebuild Waterbury, its long-term recovery office, with a dinner Saturday. Its work helping people repair or replace hundreds of homes in the area was largely done.

In southern Vermont, a new covered bridge across the Williams River in Bartonsville had its grand opening Saturday, replacing a historic covered bridge that was destroyed in the storm. Video of the bridge washing downstream came to symbolize Irene’s destructive passage across Vermont.

In Berlin, construction has begun on a $28.5 million replacement for the state hospital that’s part of a $43 million project to restructure the state’s mental health system. Irene inundated the outdated mental hospital in Waterbury.

In Bethel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hatchery forced to close after the floodwaters made it unusable is getting ready to raise fish again. And hundreds of miles of roads and hundreds of bridges have been repaired or replaced and are again carrying traffic.

"We really have come an amazing distance since the storm and that’s evidenced by the fact that Rebuild Waterbury has finished up its work, but there remain hundreds of Vermont families and individuals who have unmet needs," said Vermont’s new Irene Recovery Officer, Dave Rapaport, referring to residential damage. "There’s still a way to go. We’re hopeful we can finish up the job by the second anniversary."

Irene’s late summer passage through Vermont, dumping more than 7 inches of rain on some parts of the Green Mountains, was the biggest natural disaster to hit the state since the 1927 flood. Irene killed six, left thousands homeless and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway.

Communities from Waterbury to Wilmington, just north of the Massachusetts border, were devastated. Nine long-term recovery offices were set up across the state to focus on rebuilding after the storm.

In Waterbury, some homes were filled with water to the top of the first floor. In the area served by Rebuild Waterbury, which also included sections of Moretown and Duxbury, 446 damage claims were filed.

"You walk around in disbelief for the first couple of hours and after that you just roll up your sleeves and you start going," said Theresa Wood, the chair of Rebuild Waterbury.

One of the largest remaining unknowns is what it will take to bring back hundreds of state workers back to Waterbury. The state office complex there was inundated by Irene’s floodwaters. Most of the workers are in temporary quarters.

A project has been designed to repair some of those buildings, raze others and build new, flood-proof buildings. Rapaport said the state was hopeful that officials would reach an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about how much the federal government would contribute to the $124.7 million project, which will also include funding from the state’s insurance company.

The first phase of that reconstruction, the demolition of some buildings, could begin before the end of February, Rapaport said.

The homes in the Waterbury area were repaired or replaced using funding from FEMA, private insurance, donations raised by Rebuilding Waterbury and other funds.

In Bartonsville, construction on the replacement to the 1870 covered bridge began late last summer. Crews used timbers shipped from across the country. The $2.4 million bridge is larger than the one it replaced and was paid for through insurance money, federal and local funds and privately raised money.