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Lisa Campbell in Peavine Park, Bethel, Vermont. Photo: Sarah Harris
Lisa Campbell in Peavine Park, Bethel, Vermont. Photo: Sarah Harris

A year after Irene, Vermont reflects on recovery

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Tropical Storm Irene devastated mountain villages across the Northeast a year ago. Vermont was particularly hard hit. Major flooding downed bridges, tore houses off their foundations, washed out roads, and even left some towns inaccessible. The state's been hard at work rebuilding since.

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Cyrus Scribner, Middlesex, Vermont. Photo: Sarah Harris Tropical Storm Irene washed out the bridge on Route 30 in Jamaica, Vermont, last year. Photo: Sarah Harris

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On a Saturday in late August, Lisa Campbell shows me around Peavine Park in Bethel, Vermont, an hour south east of Burlington. When the White River flooded during Tropical Storm Irene a year ago, the rising waters brought trees, trash, and an enormous layer of silt into this popular picnic spot.

This gazebo that we’re sitting in was completely covered with water – this bench here was completely, we couldn’t find it anywhere, it was completely covered over," Lisa explains. 

She helped spearhead effort to clean up the park: "I was walking by with my dogs and thought about what a loss it was ‘cause it’s such an active part of the community people come down here all the time." So last October, Lisa organized volunteers to help clear out the silt. This spring, they replanted grass and shrubs. Now the park’s green again.

Half an hour west, in Middlesex, Vermont, near Montpelier, Cyrus Scribner leans on his tractor behind his family’s farm stand. He says the storm was devastating to their business. 

"It started to rain, and I pulled the truck out back and watched the water start to come over the banks. As the water got two to three feet high and we saw pumpkins beginning to float we thought to ourselves we better get out of here, while we still can. And we ended up driving through about three feet of water on Route 2 in three different places to get back to our house. We’d picked half of our sweet corn, we hadn’t picked any of our pumpkins, any of our melons which are all in the lower field in river-bottom soil, and all of that was lost."

The damage cost Cyrus and his family $60,000. Business still isn’t what it used to be before the storm. This year, they didn’t plant anything in those lower fields.

With the one year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, people all over Vermont are taking stock of recovery efforts, how their lives have changed and what still needs to be done.

The damage was steep: The total cost amounted to $20 million. 476 farms reported losses. Two hundred towns have repaired their roads. And Vermont’s riverbed topography changed dramatically.

"Irene didn’t discriminate when she ripped through Vermont, ripped apart our lives, and destroyed so much of our state."

That’s Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, at a press conference on farm recovery last week.

"We all got together and made the promise that we would help Vermont recover from Irene better than the way she found us." 

And so far, that’s been mostly true. The state has passed new legislation expanding the government’s role in flood response. Governor Shumlin requested that the federal government and FEMA assume 90 percent of recovery costs, which they did.

Municipalities are working to ensure that roads are rebuilt stronger to withstand future severe weather events. But people here say there’s still work to be done. According to an Irene status report compiled by the state in June, there are almost 900 open FEMA cases involving Irene survivors with unmet needs. And the long-term environmental impact of excavating in stream beds following the storm is still unclear.

For Lisa Campbell, one of the most important aspects of recovery is improving emergency management. "Building that infrastructure so that it flows really smoothly if heaven forbid we should need it again so that everybody’s in touch with each other in the way that they’re supposed to be and it’s clear who’s supposed to be in charge and what next steps are."

But on the eve of the anniversary, both Cyrus Scribner and Lisa Campbell say they’re grateful for the positive community response they’ve seen over the past year. "I think we’re all happy to be moving on," Scribner says. "It’s not completely behind us yet but I think we’re really lucky to be in a state where we have such strong communities." 

Lisa Campbell agrees: "The townsfolk have really pulled together as a community and really looked for ways to be more actively backing each other up and how can we help each other."

She'll mark the anniversary quietly. "For me it goes by and I’ll just reflect on the changes of the last year for our lives. For the people who lost their homes, I think it’s going to be a real devastating reminder."

On Tuesday night at seven, bells across Vermont will toll for 30 seconds. A free statewide commemorative event is being held Tuesday, Aug. 28, at 7 p.m., at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph.  

 

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