PUTNEY — Gov. Phil Scott and state emergency management officials toured scenes of devastation and destruction Monday from last Thursday’s surprise rainstorm, which dumped about five inches of rain on many Windham County towns in about three hours, causing millions of dollars of damage.
Current estimates placed the damage at $4.6 million in Windham and Bennington counties, the only counties affected by the fierce storm. However, state officials warned that estimate could easily rise.
Scott was given a tour of some of the worst flood damage in Putney on River Road, and several locations in Westminster, accompanied by state Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, and state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham.
In Putney, a 30-foot-deep gouge in River Road was the most dramatic damage seen during the afternoon tour, and the road is closed until further notice.
Scott, accompanied by Erica Bornemann, the director of Vermont Emergency Management, said the state is working with the local communities to gather information and estimates in preparation for asking President Joseph Biden for a federal disaster declaration, which would free up federal funds to help the state and local towns pay for the damage.
“What can we do to help?” Scott said, saying he knows towns are concerned about getting roads back into shape before snow falls.
So far, the best estimates are $4.6 million in damage in Windham and Bennington counties, with about $1.6 million of that in Bennington County, and the balance in more than a dozen Windham County towns. Scott was headed to Manchester after his Windham County tour.
At the River Road site in Putney, Scott talked to Joshua Laughlin, chairman of the Putney Select Board, and Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard, who is also the town’s emergency management director, about the next steps.
Goddard said in all there were 34 locations of serious damage in the town. “This is by far the worst,” Goddard said, where Putney has an estimate of $800,000 in damage.
And while the River Road washout was the most dramatic, Laughlin said, there were many but smaller washouts along Putney Mountain Road, which might make it more expensive to fix.
Laughlin told the governor that the town might be in good shape when it comes to getting material to fill the giant hole. Putney, along with the neighboring town of Dummerston, purchased a gravel pit together a few years ago, Laughlin said. Whether the town-owned pit has the type of material ready that the town crew is unknown, he said.
In Westminster, Town Manager Russell Hodgkins took the governor’s entourage on a tour of some of the worst flood damage: a home off Henwood Hill Road owned by the Olbrych family is uninhabitable, Hodgkins said. Rock and gravel and debris was deposited right up against the house’s foundation and flood water had gouged a new riverbed next to their house, where a large culvert had been.
Further up the dirt road was severe road washouts, which had resulted in one of two cases of cars ending up in a massive ditch. But road crews had already dumped loads of large rock to stabilize the road’s side, and the road had been graded back to a more normal width.
Hodgkins said that many area towns get their road materials from Cold River Materials in Walpole, N.H., and he said he’d been told there were 50 to 60 trucks “lined up” to get road repair materials.
Hodgkins said that the 17 roads that were closed after the storm had been reopened, at least partially, saying they were the “worst” incidents, although there was other damage.
The out-of-state woman ended up with a concussion, said Bos-Lun, who lives on the road, but was otherwise okay.
Hodgkins estimated that Westminster’s damage would total upwards of $600,000, which is close to the town’s annual highway budget of $750,000. He showed Scott washouts at the intersection of School Street and Kurn Hattin Road, as well as Orchard Hill Road, where another out-of-state driver ended up in a gouged-out ditch.
Hodgkins stood in the ditch, which was at least four feet deep.
He said he had arranged for a line of credit for the town so Westminster could continue to pay overtime to its highway crew and also pay the private contractors who were helping to put the roads back into shape.
Bornemann said the federal funding would come from FEMA, and that Vermont, along with only a few other states, had won a concession from FEMA that road repairs could incorporate improvements, and not just a matter of returning the road to its previous condition.
Scott said the state had won that concession from FEMA after Tropical Storm Irene, because it didn’t make sense to replace a blown-out culvert with the same size.
But sometimes that’s not enough. Laughlin, in Putney, noted the town had replaced a large culvert near The Grammar School after Irene with an even-larger one, but Thursday night’s storm had been too much for it and it was “topped over.”
Balint said she was concerned about the state’s response to the cumulative effect of the storms.
She said it appear that the southern part of the state was enduring a serious of “mini-Irenes,” which she believed was a result of climate change.
“These mini-Irenes are happening over and over and over,” she said, referring to a cloudburst about 10 days ago which damaged roads in West Brattleboro, doing $300,000 in damage.
Balint said that she and Mrowicki had received calls that the 211 emergency call number wasn’t working for residents seeking information and reporting damage.
But Bornemann said people should just leave their name and telephone number, and 211 operators will get back to them. She also said that people using wi-fi calling on their cell phones need to use the full emergency number, not 211.
Hodgkins said the damage in Westminster might not have been equal to the damage from Irene, “but this is right up there.”