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Irene Recovery Focuses On How To Minimize Future Damage

Steve Zind, Vermont Public Radio

One year after Tropical Storm Irene, the recovery process is still in high gear.  

It’s partly about pounding nails and painting walls, but it’s also about planning – and deciding what can be done to minimize the devastation of future storms.

Peter Edlund’s office has four wheels and gets about 40 miles to the gallon.  

As construction analyst for Central Vermont Community Action, Edlund oversees the work of rebuilding homes around the state damaged by Irene.  He spends his days in his car and today he’s in Moretown.

Edlund says looks can be deceiving when you drive through a village like this, which was underwater a year ago.  Some of the handsome old houses that line the road only look lived in.    

 “But you’ll see, we’ve got four houses in a row here that are gutted on the inside that nobody’s living in them,” Edlund says, pointing though his windshield. “ And that’s a typical example.  People don’t realize that there’s so much work to be done yet.”

Work on one of those houses is nearly complete.  

A freshly installed hardwood floor leads through the house to a back porch that looks out over the Mad River.  Volunteer Liz Harris is a Moretown resident helping with the final touches of paint.

After Irene,  “the house was dark, filled with mud. The basement was scary. I mean scary!” Harris recalls.

Now after being renovated from the foundation up, the place is a sparkling, well lit example of a successful Irene recovery project.

“It’s gorgeous,” says Harris.  Everybody in town wants to move into this house now.”

But alongside these success stories are some sobering examples of the work that lies ahead.  

Asah Rowell has seen them firsthand. Rowell chairs the Mad River Long Term Recovery Group.  

Going door to door her group has discovered people who are still without drinkable water and functioning septic systems.
“It’s pretty unbelievable that people have gone a year without a septic or without a well,” she says.  “They got help initially and it wasn’t enough.  And then they just don’t know where to go from there.”

Rowell says many of these individuals have limited resources and live in isolated locations.

Edlund acknowledges it can be hard to believe people have gone so long without basic necessities.

“My eyes are open to poverty and people of little means,” he says.  “ It might be an issue of not understanding what services are available to them.  I don’t know.”

In the wake of Irene hundreds of unskilled volunteers helped with the cleanup.  But now that the work has turned to rebuilding, skilled volunteers are in demand.  The work is being done by Vermonters and teams from out-of-state organizations;  often faith-based groups.

Edlund says there’s a big need for businesses that can provide expertise and materials for the recovery effort.

According to Edlund, “We have projects we’re ready to work on but we don’t have materials.  And we’re challenged to find them.”

About 75 reconstruction projects are underway right now.  The Vermont Long Term Recovery Group says hundreds more need some kind of help.

Edlund’s job runs for another year and as the construction season winds down, he’s already planning projects for the spring.

Edlund says as much as possible the projects are making homes more flood-proof by elevating them, installing floodgates in basements and using materials that can withstand a good soaking.

“Where we can and where we can afford to we build with resiliency,” he says.

That word, ‘resiliency’, has crept into many conversations about Irene.  It’s about taking the lessons of the past to create better ways of dealing with the future.  

The approach to recovery being used in Vermont is an example.  Case managers are in the field working one on one with disaster victims.  And construction coordinators like Edlund oversee the rebuilding.  That model was created after Hurricane Katrina. Vermont is only the second state to use it.  

Resiliency also applies to towns hit by the storm.   

George Hamilton is president of the Institute For Sustainable Communities, which is partnering with the state on a project called Resilient Vermont.  

The idea is that each community has learned lessons from Irene.  Hamilton’s job will be to bring them together to share those lessons, talk with people who have studied disaster recovery, and come up with policies and goals for the future.

“You’ve got to take stock of what worked well and what didn’t,” Hamilton says.  “You’ve got to bring in the experts and take advantage of the assets that you have and you’ve got to develop a plan of action that gets you better prepared for next time.”

Resiliency often comes with a price tag, whether it’s money for bigger culverts or expanding a town’s business base.  

Waterbury is one Vermont community that got busy right after Irene mapping out what it would take to be more resilient in the future.

The process started with a series of community meetings.  Then a plan was created that stresses themes like energy efficiency, affordable housing and recreation.  At a meeting in May, organizers pitched the ideas to potential investors.

Bill Shepeluk, Waterbury’s Municipal Manager says, “There’s a real desire to look at this as an opportunity:  How we can shape our future and how we can point ourselves in the direction that 10 or 15 years down the road we’ll have re-invented ourselves and Waterbury can be a model for other communities that unfortunately might have to suffer some devastation like this.”

Resiliency also has statewide dimensions.
Vermont is encouraging towns to adopt bylaws that would keep development away from areas along rivers where erosion from floods is likely to cause damage.   

And resiliency is starting to enter into the discussion about how farms can cope with future storms.    

Even in places where Irene didn’t wash away farmland or carry crops downstream, the floodwaters contained contaminants that rendered crops worthless.  

Stuart Comstock-Gay is President and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation.  He says we’re only beginning to formulate the questions about making farms more resilient.

“Do we need to change farming practices more fundamentally?” Comstock-Gay asks. “After the floods the water on the ground was considered toxic in many places.  What do we do if every time it floods its toxic water?  Historically floods replenished the land, and if they’re not replenishing the land but poisoning it, we’ve got a much bigger challenge. I think folks are just barely scratching the surface of that question.”

Given Vermont’s geography and nature’s power, there are limits to what can be done.  

But with climate change and the threat of more violent weather, Irene recovery is about getting people back in their homes and being prepared for the next big storm.

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