After Irene, More Work Needed in Vermont

Four years after Tropical Storm Irene brought merciless trauma to Vermont, a new report suggests more work is needed to develop a more resilient Vermont that is better prepared for natural disasters.

Irene hit Vermont August 28, 2011, dumping 11 inches of rain in some parts of the state. Rivers turned into monsters that swallowed homes, bridges, and roads. Six Vermont residents died, and recovery cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities, a non-profit based in Montpelier that works with communities around the world on transformative projects, released a progress report this month updating its 2013 "Roadmap to Resilience" analysis of how to prepare for disasters the group warned could be worsened by climate change.

"We are doing well, we can do better," Liz Schlegel of the Institute for Sustainable Communities said of the progress report.

The report praises Vermont's work in several areas, including in implementing transportation vulnerability assessments after Irene.

The report does, however, say more work is needed in other areas, namely in increasing awareness of the need to identify the risks of having so many Vermont downtowns located near rivers. The report also makes recommendations, including launching a fund to help purchase hazard-prone homes or buildings so the properties can be converted into green space that will give floodwaters a place to more safely spill.

"How are we ready to work together? To deal with whatever comes our way?" Schlegel asked, describing the spirit of the report. "Because things will happen."

For more on the progress report, and the original Roadmap to Resilience, visit this website.

Sue Minter, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, previously led Vermont's Irene recovery. She told necn she is still touched by knowing how many volunteers stepped up to make sure their neighbors weren't left behind.

But Minter still wants a culture change at FEMA, when it comes to future storm responses. She said the agency needs to rethink the way it funds repairs, with more attention paid to creating larger bridges or culverts that can withstand the impacts from more powerful storms.

"We can't have federal programs looking to the past to tell us how to design a bridge or a home," Minter said. "We need to design for the future. We want, for the next event, to have them say, 'You're right, your standards are correct, that's what we'll reimburse you for.'"

Minter said she is very encouraged by recent progress in the community of Waterbury. Devastated by Irene, Waterbury is currently in the midst of building a new town office building, and recently unveiled the new South Main Apartments. Waterbury also announced plans for construction at the Hunger Mountain Children's Center. That project, as well as the new housing, were awarded community development block grants for disaster recovery, through the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Also, work on the historic state office complex in Waterbury, which was left in ruins in Irene, is nearing completion. Starting in December and going through March of 2016, 850 state workers from the Vermont Agency of Human Services are scheduled to return to the complex. They have been working elsewhere for the past four years.

Minter said those developments, as well as a renewed attitude of collaboration that Irene formed between branches of state government, local governments, non-profits, businesses, and community members, have her optimistic that Vermont is on its way to becoming an even more prepared and resilient state. 

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