With today marking the second anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene we can't help but reflect back on the events that historic day, the heroic deeds of emergencies services and volunteers alike, the Herculean cleanup and rebuilding efforts that followed, and the work that still remains even two years later.
In the days leading up to Aug. 28, 2011 we all heard the reports about Hurricane Irene making its way up the East Coast and the predictions that it would hit New England. Most Vermonters never gave it a second thought, however, because we figured we were far enough inland and would be spared the brunt of the storm. When we think of hurricanes we think of the high winds and the storm surge along coastal communities.
From the thousands of people we interviewed in the days, weeks and months after the storm there were two common themes. The first was that nobody anticipated the amount of rain we would get and how much damage it would inflict. The storm dropped 11 inches on parts of the state where the ground was already saturated by previous storms. Water came gushing out of nowhere, roaring down mountainsides from every direction to converge with other raging torrents into low-lying valleys, ripping buildings off their foundation and tearing up huge swaths of roadway.
When all was said and done, the storm killed six people, damaged or destroyed 500 miles of roads and 200 bridges, and displaced thousands.
The other common theme to emerge from our interviews of those who lived through the flood was the way everyone pulled together. We showed the world what it means to be Vermont Strong and we set the example for disaster recovery.
As we wrote on this page last year, marking the first anniversary of Irene, "From Brattleboro to Wilmington, from Halifax to Jamaica, from Bellows Falls to Wardsboro, people picked up shovels, and chain saws, and hammers and saws and they went to work to fix what was broken.
"We saw it daily: Neighbors helping neighbors, expecting nothing in return. That's just what we do in this part of the world. We stand up when we are knocked down and we reach out and help those who have been knocked down, too. This is a quality of character we are proud of, and rightfully so."
Halifax EMS Chief Christina Moore is certain proud of her town as she recalled this week how people went out in four wheelers and horses, checking in on their neighbors. They delivered food and water. Hot dishes were brought to the Emergency Operations Center for the volunteers.
"Our town was amazing," Moore told the Reformer. "There was a huge outpouring of volunteer support. We were very well organized, very quickly."
Vermont's congressional delegation continues to brag to their Washington colleagues about how everyone pulled together for their community and for their state.
"What we witnessed in the days after the disaster struck was Vermont at its best with an outpouring of help for storm victims from thousands of friends and neighbors, the Vermont National Guard and our state's emergency responders," said Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in a joint statement.
"In the two years since one of the worst natural disasters in our history, we have continued to work with Gov. Shumlin and other state and local leaders to make certain that we receive all of the federal resources Vermont needs and deserves to recover and rebuild," the delegation added.
Altogether, more than $565 million has been committed or is in the pipeline from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture and from Small Business Administration loans to homeowners and small businesses.
To be sure, much has been accomplished over the last two years in terms to cleaning up from the aftermath and rebuilding the roads and buildings that were destroyed. But plenty of evidence of Irene's wrath still remains. Washed out river banks measuring several feet high and uprooted trees lying in the middle of the rivers look like gaping wounds on the land. There still is some bridge replacement work that has been on hold while some towns wait for disaster relief funding. Empty storefronts from businesses that never recovered and barren lots where houses once stood continue to scare our communities.
But while it has been a slower recovery process for some, progress continues to be made. The Jamaica Selectboard this week voted to approve entering into a buyout agreement that finally will provide Water Street property owners with funds that they have long awaited.
In Halifax last week, the town's Selectboard met at Hale Road to approve the bridge built by Renaud Brothers, which was the last of the Irene recovery construction efforts. And in Wilmington, which recently received a coveted downtown designation, great strides are being made to improve the economic vitality that was severely bruised when Irene forced several businesses to close.
None of this would have been possible without the tremendous efforts of community leaders, businesses and average citizens all over the state working together toward a common goal. We were able to emerge, as Shumlin has said many times over the past two years, stronger than Irene left us. And what we said here a year ago still holds true: The bonds that built our communities are still there and no flood can tear them asunder.