Tropical Storm Irene: Is Bennington stronger five years later?

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BENNINGTON >> Five years ago, Tropical Storm Irene caused an estimated $15 billion in damage to the eastern United States, making it the seventh most expensive storm in the country's history.

Damaged to Vermont was estimated to be more than $700 million, making it one of the worst disasters in the state's history.

According to the Vermont Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group, a private nonprofit tasked with raising money for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, $850 million in aid came to Vermont from multiple sources, among them the federal government, state funds, local and private sources, as well as insurance.

The storm, which began in the Caribbean as a Category I hurricane, dropped up to 10 inches of rain in some parts of Vermont, causing rivers to swell and jump their banks, leading to nothing more than flooded basements in some places and utter devastation in others.

Today, all the major damage from the storm has been repaired; all that's left of Irene is in memories and financial records.

What remains to be seen is how will the region handle the next such storm. Were the right lessons learned and will the prevention measures put in place be enough? Until the next Irene hits, there's no way to tell, but local planners seem optimistic.

"The whole thing is this question of resilience, and did we put things back, and are we stronger?" said Cynthia Browning, the state representative for Bennington-4 and a member of the Arlington Select Board. "And I think in many cases, we did. I think the bridges are stronger in Arlington because we repaired them. The [Kelley Stand Road] in Sunderland is better."

Browning said that she and many others learned a great deal about how rivers behave during large flood events and that those lessons have been applied during repair work.

Where some towns have altered their zoning bylaws to restrict building construction in floodplains, Bennington no longer allows structures in floodplains, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.

"Where the river had widened, we left it wide. We didn't close it back up again," he said. "We figured that's where it wants to be. Now we've got a much wider river basin. We've passed laws prohibiting development along the river."

Hurd said the town has also submitted a river management plan to the state which, when approved, will allow the town to send heavy equipment into the river to clear debris at certain times of the year. Bennington is more prepared now to deal with an Irene-level flood, he said. Planners across the county and the state as a whole have a greater understanding about how rivers behave during flood conditions.

During the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were a great deal of unknowns and many decisions had to be been quickly.

When part of Route 9 washed out, along with a section of a water main, Bennington found itself cut off from its main water supply as well as from the town of Woodford.

"The only way you could get to Woodford was to go down through North Adams [Mass.] and through Stamford and Readsboro," said Hurd. "Fortunately, the water main in Woodford was covered by insurance and by FEMA. We lost not a lot of main when you consider it, but it was enough to endanger our water supply. Thank God for Morgan Spring."

While the main water supply was cut off, the town pumped water from Morgan Spring, located off Gage Street, to a water tower on Chapel Hill Road. Residents were asked to only use what water they needed to avoid shortages. Fortunately, there was little to no interruption in water service.

Hurd said the cost to repair that damage was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most of the money spent in Bennington was on securing the Roaring Branch, which threatened to breach a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers behind the Mount Anthony Union High School on Park Street.

All told, Hurd estimated Irene's financial impact on Bennington at about $6 million. Much of it was covered by FEMA and insurance, but the town spent years fighting FEMA over its initial refusal to reimburse the town for the $3.9 million spent directly on the Roaring Branch, stabilizing the dam, shoring up its banks, and clearing debris from beneath bridges.

Through appeals, the town was able to get FEMA to reimburse for all but $1.3 million. To pay off that amount, the town has taken out a bond.

"This past year, the budget included the bond payments to pay off the $1.3 million," said Hurd. "We start with interest only in the first year. The second year will be $140,000 over 15 years to pay that down. And we'll move forward."

Bennington and surrounding areas were hit by Irene on Aug. 28, 2011, a Sunday. Fearing a second storm would arrive within days and possibly bring another 10 inches of water, the town wasted little time getting into the Roaring Branch.

"I can remember when [Highway Superintendent] R.J. Jolly and [Assistant Town Manager] Dan Monks approached me with their plan to get into the river, because the water was still relatively high, but the goal was to get in there and get some of that material moved out," said Hurd. "We were concerned there was a second storm coming following the same track and we thought, 'Oh, jeez, if we get another 11 inches of rain, we're in big trouble.'"

Contractors working on the eastern leg of the now complete Bennington Bypass were hired to assist with the river work, which began in August and ended in December.

Hurd said that in Bennington, between 200 and 300 people were evacuated, mainly in the area of County Street, the eastern end of Gage Street, and North Branch Street. Most of them were able to go home that evening.

The area north of town known as Paper Mill Village along Route 67A near the Walloomsac River also saw flooding, which damaged a number of homes and was the scene of a dramatic water rescue by the North Bennington Fire Department who saved a brother and sister who were forced from their home by floodwaters.

The home was later purchased by the town and the area made into a park, according to Hurd.

In Sunderland, $3.8 million in damage was done to the Kelley Stand Road, which runs through the Green Mountain National Forest and connects to Stratton. Significant portions of the road were obliterated when the Roaring Branch (not the one in Bennington) tore away its own banks, sweeping away three houses.

No lives were claimed, but one person did lose the home he grew up in.

FEMA money was not used to repair the Kelley Stand. It's a town-owned road, but because it runs through the Green Mountain National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service was able to use funds from the Federal Highway Administration to not only fix the road, but to rebuild it with improvements so as to avoid future damage from flooding.

"When they put the road back, they didn't try to put back the road and the houses that were washed away, they didn't try to put back the berms," said Browning. "This is very important, because I've heard from old-timers there was a tropical storm in 1938 where the same thing happened on Kelly Stand Road that happened with Irene, but they put the road back with the berms to pinch in the river."

Browning, who also serves on the town of Arlington Select Board, said several bridges in Arlington were damaged. Benedict Crossing Bridge was struck by a camper that had washed into the river. Another bridge was hit by a clump of trees.

Browning said that, according to the town's records, it received $199,784 in FEMA funds. The money went toward small projects, such as $2,000 to clear debris from the Arlington Recreation Park to $18,969 to fix the West Arlington Covered Bridge (which also received $42,000 from insurance).

Benedict Crossing bridge received $32,724 in FEMA funding to repair. River Road required $26,293 in FEMA funds to fix.

According to figures provided by the Bennington County Regional Commission, which it obtained from the state, FEMA approved the following approximate amounts to towns in Bennington County for Irene's damage to public property. The numbers are only what FEMA approved for damage to public property.

Dorset: $13,100

Landgrove: $4,000

Manchester: $179,000

Peru: $225,200

Pownal: $43,100

Readsboro: $662,400

Rupert: $383,900

Searsburg: $235,300

Shaftsbury: $56,900

Stamford: $72,100

Sunderland: $67,800 (Does not include Kelley Stand Road project)

Winhall: $191,700

Woodford: $346,700

— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115


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