WILMINGTON >> Tropical Storm Irene was Vermont's most devastating natural disaster since flooding in 1927, and while it took less than a day for the storm to strike, it took years for some residents and businesses to get back to a sense of normalcy.
Of all of Vermont's towns that were affected by the storm, Wilmington is rated in the top two for enduring the most damage in the state, according to Town Manager Scott Murphy.
"Part of our problem was and still is that the downtown is located at a bottleneck, kind of like a bath tub," Murphy said
Irene pummeled through southern Vermont on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. That morning, water rose eight feet in 15 minutes, destroying 500 miles of state highway and damaging some 200 state-owned bridges. While the storm took less than 24 hours to strike, it affected the area's landscapes and pockets, costing the state $850.54 million in recovery costs by 2013.
When Murphy left his job as the Economic and Community Development Director for the Town of Bennington and came to the Wilmington administrative office in February after Irene. There were 63 project work sheets from FEMA that included infrastructure projects that had to be corrected. When Murphy arrived to the job, some were started, some were partially completed, and some had been wrapped up.
Many Wilmington businesses experienced a "difficult economic downturn" in the aftermath of the storm, which hit during a time when some were already struggling, according to Murphy.
"Some were closed for months, up to a year, and some never reopened," stated Murphy.
Aside from taking on the responsibility of a new a job after the devastating storm, Murphy along with other administrative staff and members of the police department were temporarily relocated to the former Rite Aid space within the Shaw's supermarket complex. Murphy notes this building was a "critical component" of the town's recovery and the rebuilding cost was $378,000 plus replacement of equipment and town clerk damages of $163,000.
"There were no serious mitigation things we did because there's not much you can do being in the flood plains," said Murphy.
The day of the storm
Wilmington Police Chief Joseph M. Szarejko, who has been a member of the department since 1982, retold what it was like for him the day of the storm. He and the fire chief, Ken March, were sitting at the fire station around 6 a.m. watching weather updates, and Szarejko knew something was not right when things began to escalate with high water levels.
"When the river began rising more rapidly than I have ever seen it rise in past years, I starting calling in for additional personnel," said Szarejko. "It continued to rise so rapidly, the town became a river shortly there after."
Szarejko deployed officers to different areas of town, evacuating people from those areas, controlling traffic and directing vehicle operators to higher areas to try and get people out of harm's way. March responded as the incident commander. The police department lost a tremendous amount of equipment during the storm and ended up working out of a small trailer and cruisers for awhile. Everything inside the department had to be replaced, according to Szarejko. According Murphy, the police department equipment cost more than $121,000 to replace.
However, Szarejko mentions that — thankfully — their data and cases were not lost as they were stored electronically in Waterbury or at the State Attorney's Office.
March notes that the Wilmington Fire Department was flooded out and rebuilt back in the same location that is still deemed a flood zone, which he says is a "huge concern." Szarejko shares that worry and agrees that something needs to change in the future.
"I think it's really important both the police and fire are able to relocate in case of another event like Irene, not only to function but so we don't have to go through another two years of rebuilding," said Szarejko.
Murphy estimates that it took about a year until the staff was able to enter the newly designed police department and administrative building. He notes that it has been a goal of the Select Board to relocate these departments to higher ground, but it has not been addressed recently.
"When the memory dies of Irene, other issues come that are more important," Murphy said.
Szarejko agrees that closer to when the storm occurred there was "more energy" around relocating these departments and several grants were provided to research other options.
"At first there was a lot of energy to move the department, quite a few studies were done where we talked about different locations. A lot of work went into it and it has dwindled now. It seems to have died down," said Szarejko. "It needs to comes up again because this event could happen again. Is it likely to happen again? Nobody knows, but if it happened again, we would be in the same boat."
Murphy says the administrative/police building was probably the most repaired structure as far as future flood preparation. Oil tanks have since been strapped down and new flood resilient doors were installed at the entrance.
"We had 4 feet of sheetrock removed on the first floor of both buildings, which includes the Police Department and Town Clerk's office," said Murphy. "Other high costs included the elevator repairs ($60K,exterior paint of building $57K,electrical repairs $25K, water damage cleanup & pollution damage cleanup of over $100K."
He adds that most of the infrastructure improvements that were made after Irene required better flood resilience. Larger culverts were put in, bridges were elevated or extended in length and two buildings in town were bought out by the town through the FEMA Mitigation Program.
"A lot of things have been done to prevent as much infrastructure damage," Murphy said.
Murphy believes that all of the town's infrastructure projects in response to Irene are complete, except for one large culvert near the Hermitage Club and Mount Snow, which is expected to be upgraded to new FEMA requirements. Murphy adds that the culvert was going to be upgraded this summer, but because a bridge was deemed in poor condition, that project needed attention first. An updated culvert helps during a flood if there is a lot of water congestion. Murphy estimates culvert that needs to be repair may cost $350,000 to $400,000.
Flood prone area
Wilmington is enrolled in the National Flood Insurance Program and townspeople are required to be enrolled by their mortgage as well. Murphy notes this was imposed well before Irene since the town is determined to be a "flood prone" area.
According to Murphy, at one time, FEMA suggested moving the entire downtown area to higher ground. Murphy said there was some thought given to this, "but not much."
"It's the whole way the village was established years ago, now all the businesses are focused around the highway. So to relocate a whole village ... how much would that cost?" said Murphy.
While the town was not in favor of moving its downtown area, Murphy says he thinks this was a wake-up call for Wilmington and other areas in Vermont that are flood prone, and both Murphy and Szarejko spoke highly of a recent Vigilant Guard exercise around emergency preparedness.
Participating were the Wilmington police and fire departments, the town's Highway Department, Deerfield Valley Rescue, the MOOver busing service and the Community Emergency Response Team, which formed after Tropical Storm Irene had occurred and was identified as a goal of long-term recovery in planning with FEMA. The idea originally entailed the helicopters dropping participants off at the Twin Valley Elementary School. But plans changed last minute. The helicopters circled the downtown area then returned to the field behind the former Twin Valley High School
"We feel more confident that if another event like that happened, we would be in better shape tin some constellation from the flood in Irene," Murphy said
Murphy added that things would probably "go down" like they did during the Vigilant Guard exercise, if a flood of Irene's size returned.
Despite the economic downfalls that Wilmington businesses experienced, some have been able to bounce back with community support. Dot's restaurant, for example, was shoved off its foundation and water lifted all nine oak tables. Dot's was among 48 businesses along this streetscape that were flooded out, two floating away.
Luckily for Dot's, the Preservation Trust of Vermont brought in engineers, pledged money and established a recovery fund. In addition, local homeowners created the Wilmington Fund Vermont to bring businesses back. Dot's reopened on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, as a $1 million diner, with fundraising generating $200,000, and the project receiving $90,000 in tax credits.
"The town had a major face lift. Some places could use some more work, but the town is really revitalized. There are a lot of people shopping and going to restaurants and there are more people in town than I have ever seen in the summer," said Szarejko.
Murphy agrees that the town has seen an economic turnaround since shortly after the flood, but he also mentions how the incident left a forever mark on the area.
"I will say that it seems like everybody is a little nervous or more attentive to hurricanes and heavy rain events. People are much more aware of it. It's at the back of their conscious, and I don't think it will ever go away," Murphy said.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275