BRATTLEBORO -- On the day Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont, Rob Simpson watched as the first bus carrying 16 patients from the flood-damaged Vermont State Hospital rolled into the Brattleboro Retreat.
"These patients were, in many cases, frightened and upset by the day that they had been through," said Simpson, the Retreat's president and CEO.
"I wrote at the time in my administrative journal, ‘I can only imagine the difficulty of being ill, of being hospitalized and then going through a natural disaster and an evacuation -- for some patients, leaving behind the only possessions they had in the world.'"
The events of Aug. 29, 2011 led directly to a gathering Monday afternoon at the Retreat as administrators, employees, mental-health advocates and others marked the opening of a newly renovated, 14-bed adult intensive unit.
Officials say the facility is meant for "the state's most severely ill psychiatric patients" -- the type of patient who would have gone to Vermont State Hospital before Irene struck.
"This is a huge celebration," Gov. Peter Shumlin declared before cutting a ceremonial ribbon. "And I want to say, I think it represents a new era -- I hope -- in Retreat-state relations."
Prior to Irene, officials already were puzzling over how to fix the state's mental health system. The state hospital in Waterbury, Shumlin recalled, was "dilapidated" and had lost its accreditation a decade before.
At the same time, there were discussions about how the state and the Retreat might partner.
The storm forced that to happen in less than a day's time. Simpson on Monday detailed how the Retreat shuffled patients and staff to deal with the influx of state hospital patients -- an influx that has continued since Irene.
"Since August 2011, we have seen more than 315 individuals admitted to the Retreat who, just 20 months ago, would have been admitted to Vermont State Hospital," Simpson said.
Officials say the new adult intensive unit, which included renovations at the Retreat's Tyler Building and creation of a secure outdoor courtyard, "reflects state-of-the-art design, safety and functionality for high-need psychiatric patients" who typically stay longer than other Retreat patients do.
The project came with a $5.3 million price tag, most of which was covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, administrators said.
Shumlin sought to place the 9,600-square-foot unit within the context of ongoing efforts to overhaul the state's mental health system. Among those on hand for Monday's event were Patrick Flood, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, and Mary Moulton, who currently serves as that department's acting commissioner.
"This is the beginning of a long journey, and we're looking forward to finally providing mental health patients in Vermont with the quality of care that they have deserved accompanied with the quality of facility that we have been missing," Shumlin said.
"We all know that, right now, we're delivering mental health services in a system that is literally flying by the seat of our pants. The Retreat is an extraordinary partner in ensuring that we haven't been met by real tragedy and real crisis," the governor added.
"What this celebrates, in this moment, is one more step in the process and the goal of getting us to the community-based delivery system that we've all dreamed about."
Shumlin made reference to increased "scrutiny" that comes with public-sector delivery of mental health services.
And there have been some recent rough spots for the Retreat. Protracted union negotiations and a round of layoffs spurred controversy last year, and news came last month that the facility was facing possible sanctions from the federal government due to several reported deficiencies in patient care.
But on Monday, Shumlin praised the Retreat's "willingness to come to the plate in our time of crisis."
And he delivered a message to Retreat staff: "We are with you all the way,"
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.