Energy & Environment

What Tropical Storm Irene can teach Vermont 10 years later

Tropical Storm Irene floods Brattleboro’s Flat Street business district on Aug. 28, 2011. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Business and government leader Neale Lunderville was just another Vermonter enjoying an end-of-summer weekend when, strolling his South Burlington neighborhood Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, he felt a wet blanket of foreboding slap him in the face.

“This is more than a little storm,” Lunderville recalls thinking as pelting rain and 60-mph winds whipped up waves 6 feet high on Lake Champlain.

State Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, for her part, had cut short a family camping trip when, returning to her Waterbury home, she was hit with the same realization upon answering the phone.

This series features reflections and lessons from the historic flooding of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Read the full series.

“I remember hearing something I’d never heard,” Minter says today. “It was the words, ‘We’ve lost the road.’”

Tropical Storm Irene was supposed to be a former hurricane running out of gas after a joyride up the East Coast. Instead, it crumbled more than 500 miles of Vermont’s landlocked highway, closing such north-south arteries as Route 100 — the state’s longest — and east-west corridors including Route 9 linking Bennington and Brattleboro and Route 4 connecting Rutland and White River Junction.

Suddenly the old relic “you can’t get there from here” was Vermont’s new reality.

Before Irene, the Green Mountain State judged natural disasters based on how they compared with the Great Flood of 1927, a 36-hour deluge that killed 84 people and washed away what today would total $4 billion in roads, rails and telephone and telegraph lines.

Irene’s statistics, though not as steep, nonetheless are staggering. The 2011 storm dumped up to 11 inches of rain, destroyed nearly $750 million in property (a figure equal to almost two-thirds of that year’s state general fund budget) and damaged 200 bridges, 450 utility poles, 600 historic buildings, 1,000 culverts, 2,400 road segments, 3,500 homes and 20,000 acres of farmland.

Worse, it took the lives of seven Vermonters, including a 20-year-old Mount Snow staffer, a Brattleboro painter, a Ludlow real estate agent, a West Rutland National Guard member, a Woodstock retiree and a Rutland public works employee and his son.

For Lunderville and Minter — each who would lead state government’s response in the role of “Irene recovery officer” — the memories remain strong. But what seems like yesterday for them is the stuff of prehistoric legend for today’s youth and recent transplants yet to discover the lessons that linger.

“Irene was not a one-off event,” Lunderville says. “In the decade since, we’ve had fires and floods and droughts and severe weather that is coming in increasing frequency. And we are not doing enough to prepare for the effects of climate change that will make Irene seem pale in comparison.”

‘Trying to get our arms around all of these parts’

I was a Rutland Herald reporter a decade ago when, finding myself stranded in my hometown of Brattleboro, I wondered when I’d see my workplace again.

My Monday commute usually was as simple as driving Interstate 91 to Rockingham and Route 103 to Rutland. But the morning after Irene, that and every other option was roadblocked.

Walking into downtown Brattleboro, I discovered peers from The New York Times and NBC’s “Today” show eyeing streets that hours earlier had looked more like Venice. We were drawn less by the specific damage, however, than by the fact none of us could reach even harder-hit communities north and west.

Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin surveyed the scene in a National Guard helicopter as Minter saw fellow government workers evacuate the flooded 1,500-employee Waterbury State Office Complex — ironically, the home of Vermont Emergency Management.

At Vermont’s largest electric utility, Lunderville and his then-Green Mountain Power colleagues were aiming to address more than 140,000 outages without the ability to reach 13 cutoff communities — the state’s newly isolated islands of Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Marlboro, Mendon, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Rochester, Stockbridge, Strafford, Stratton and Wardsboro.

Lunderville, having worked the previous eight years for Republican Gov. James Douglas, phoned Shumlin’s Democratic administration with a personal offer to help. Some might have considered the call a gracious yet token gesture. But within days, the governor’s office appointed him to the newly created role of Irene recovery officer.

Ask Lunderville what scared him most upon agreeing to head the government response and he doesn’t point to any one problem. 

“Yes, it was roads and bridges, but you had so many individuals and families impacted, so many businesses and farms impacted, you had an environmental impact, you had a community impact. … The biggest challenge was trying to get our arms around all of these parts without letting any fall through the cracks.”

‘A lot of pain and loss and work to do’

Reporting it all was similarly daunting.

I was usually an easy half-hour from Wilmington, one of Vermont’s hardest-hit towns with $13 million in damage. But unable to drive there, I found myself reaching out to whoever picked up the phone.

Take bookseller Lisa Sullivan. We first spoke that spring after a fire consumed her Brattleboro store. Four months later, she was inside its sister Wilmington shop when the nearby Deerfield River, normally 2 feet deep, swelled to 25 feet — swallowing up nearly $300,000 in stock and surroundings.

“We had water coming in waves,” she recounted, “and then we smelled propane.”

Sullivan wasn’t alone in facing a toxic torrent spiked with everything from swept-up fuel tanks to septic systems. The floodwater rose higher than the 65-inch mark painted outside the town office after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and left the nearby Dot’s Restaurant precariously perched off its riverbank foundation.

And that was just the toll in one of 225 Vermont municipalities reporting damage.

Over in Rockingham, the raging Williams River carried away the nearly 150-year-old Bartonsville Covered Bridge — an act captured and replayed on YouTube a half-million times.

Danby, having feted its 250th anniversary the day before, woke to find the storm had washed away the old home of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Pearl Buck just hours after its christening as the new artifact-filled town historical society.

Royalton, sliced in two after losing its roads over the central White River, bushwhacked a path through a field of sunflowers to create a makeshift Exit 2½ onto Interstate 89.

Farther from the highway, Pittsfield’s 546 residents gathered on the village green for lack of a single road, power or phone connection to the rest of the world. Rochester’s 1,139 similarly stranded townspeople had to retrieve the remains of more than two dozen unearthed gravesites.

Then came the ravages you couldn’t see. At Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre and Hotel, the storm didn’t touch the mohair seats, hand-painted murals or Art Deco terrazzo floors. Instead, it shut down everything by flooding the basement electrical, plumbing and heating systems.

“Infrastructure drowned in water and mud and oil and debris — you can tell that story hundreds and hundreds of times across Vermont,” Shumlin told me 10 years ago. “From the outside, you can’t see the damage. But when you dig into the guts, there’s a lot of pain and loss and work to do.”

A vehicle abandoned during Tropical Storm Irene sits on a crumbled stretch of Route 103 in Ludlow. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘I’m not asking for permission’

Over in Rutland, fellow journalist Peggy Shinn received a call from her sister, a Wall Street Journal bureau chief wondering how to steer a reporter into the flood-ravaged state.

Shinn knew the only way was to do it herself. And so she pulled out her mountain bike and pedaled about Rutland County before turning several newspaper dispatches into her book “Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont’s Flash Floods, and How One Small State Saved Itself.”

In it, Shinn tells the inside story of how several Rutland County contractors rebuilt the state’s central east-west Route 4 artery. The morning after Irene, for example, Mosher Excavating worker Mark Bourassa left Rutland, only to find the road east closed. And so he drove 25 ravaged miles south, then a dozen more north before a washout prompted him to park his truck and walk the remaining 6 miles to his employer.

Arriving by noon, Bourassa and boss Craig Mosher manned a bulldozer and excavator to begin clearing and reconstructing Route 4. First, however, Mosher called the state to report their plans. The woman answering the phone said, according to her list, he wasn’t an approved contractor.

“I’m not asking for permission,” Mosher replied. “I’m telling you what I’m doing.”

Less than three weeks later, local contractors — having replaced the equivalent of up to 10,000 dump-truck loads of rock and gravel — had rebuilt the road.

Elsewhere in the state, other private companies, government crews from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and National Guard units from eight states did similar work. A month later, they had repaired 84 of 118 closed state roads. By the end of the year, they reopened the last of 34 closed state bridges (in Roxbury) and stretches of highway (Route 107 between Bethel and Stockbridge).

Tropical Storm Irene damaged or destroyed 200 Vermont bridges, including this one in Cavendish. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘So much more work to do’

But roads and bridges were only the start of rebuilding.

In Brattleboro, the downtown Latchis block required a $500,000 cleanup (starting with almost two dozen washing-machine-sized dehumidifiers) so it could reopen as tourists arrived for fall foliage.

In Wilmington, Sullivan’s husband, carpenter Phil Taylor, repaired Bartleby’s Books in time to welcome holiday shoppers on Black Friday.

In Rockingham, locals sold T-shirts, tote bags, postcards and prints to help raise money to replace the Bartonsville Covered Bridge by the start of 2013.

In Waterbury, crews needed four years and $130 million to refurbish the century-old State Office Complex and add a two-story annex, with all occupied space a half-foot above the 500-year flood mark. Shumlin, touring the result in 2015, deemed it Vermont government’s biggest-ever construction project, “both in dollar value and ambition.”

Personally, I stumbled over my favorite story of resilience at the Shaw’s Supermarket in Ludlow, where the staff had hoped to mop up 3 feet of floodwater in a few hours — only to learn the store would have to close for months to remove and replace 13,000 square feet of damaged concrete flooring, conduits and cable.

Shaw’s knew that wouldn’t work in a town without another grocer within a half-hour’s drive. And so it rented a wedding tent and created its first-ever canvas commissary.

Without space for a full inventory, the store whittled down its more than 20,000 items to the best-selling 700. Without electrical wiring, it plugged into backup generators and batteries. Without space-age scales or scanners, it traded barcodes and laser beams for price tags and punch-key cash registers.

What began as a 3,200-square-foot canopy a quarter the size of the flooded store ballooned between Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas into a nearly 6,000-square-foot tent city stocked to satisfy both milk-chugging townspeople and Champagne-toasting tourists.

(I still remember the leaf peepers who mistook the scene for an overly successful food drive or, on the flip side, a sign the town was so backward it had yet to discover bricks and mortar.)

The tents made way for a new supermarket in January 2012 as Minter took over for Lunderville in the role of recovery officer. By the storm’s first anniversary, Shumlin was able to trade the National Guard helicopter for a celebratory road tour.

“We have so much to be proud of,” the governor said, “and so much more work to do.”

Indeed, Minter had enough to stay on for the rest of the year before passing the baton to colleagues still working at the Vermont Emergency Management’s recovery and mitigation office.

Shaw’s Supermarket temporarily replaced its flooded Ludlow store with a tent city after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘An education we could have done without’

Irene’s waters receded in days, but the resulting paperwork flooded the state for years.

More than 7,000 Vermont households filed applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Almost 50 municipalities borrowed money while they determined how to pay off repair bills. Most figured reimbursement would come shortly after reconstruction. Most figured wrong.

Halifax, population 728, faced an Irene road repair bill approaching $4 million — five times its annual budget. The town was one of many that borrowed money on multi-month lines of credit in hopes of receiving 75% federal and 15% state disaster reimbursement, leaving it to pay 10%.

But completing the required paperwork took time. Crews in Pomfret, population 904, worked 3,700 hours not only to repair 50 of its 62 miles of road but also to document the Irene damage with 2,000 pages of applications and upward of 10,000 photos.

“FEMA considers each damage site on a road as a separate project, therefore we have 40, and each requires approximately 50 pages of paperwork,” Pomfret leaders wrote in their 2012 annual report. “We have assurances and promises and a lot of paid bills that need to be reimbursed. We still have not received a single penny.”

Barnard, population 947, had to shell out $1 million as it waited for word.

“Needless to say, we have emptied the town’s coffers,” its leaders wrote in their report. “While we’re grateful for what will eventually be generous FEMA and state reimbursement, the process is an education we could have done without.”

Many towns continued to drip in red ink for years. Halifax ran budget deficits until FEMA sent reimbursement in 2014. Strafford, population 1,098, didn’t retire its $2.7 million in cleanup costs until 2016. Bethel, population 2,030, didn’t stop reporting about its more than $8 million in bills until 2017.

Workers haul Tropical Storm Irene debris from the flooded Latchis Theatre and Hotel in Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘Irene was just the appetizer’

On Irene’s 10th anniversary, the state is working to finish the paperwork on 20 final projects.

“Vermont was underprepared for anything like this level of devastation,” Minter says today, “or to play in the bureaucracy that is FEMA.”

But the storm came with a silver lining. Just as the 1927 flood spurred the state to modernize its infrastructure (before it had a highway department but fewer than 100 miles of “hard-surfaced” road), the 2011 rains prompted a series of government changes.

Many cities and towns, for example, have bought out property owners in flood zones to avert future problems. The state has built stronger roads and bridges, updated its laws so planning addresses resilience and river corridor protection, and launched a Flood Ready Vermont website to educate the public about its programs. 

The state also has learned how to work with the federal government.

“We improved so much after Irene,” Minter says, “and, because of it, we were that much more ready during this pandemic.”

The past helped the state better respond to the present, which in turn could aid it in the future.

“One thing we’ve heard with Covid is the need to follow the experts, to follow the facts, to follow the science,” says Lunderville, now head of Vermont Gas Systems. “When the flooding comes, no one can stop that. But there’s work we can do to be ready for the next thing.”

The two Irene recovery officers hope the state will invest some of its federal Covid relief money into both preventing more climate change and preparing for its impact.

“There are a lot of warning signs all around us — not just the remembrance of flooding 10 years ago — that are symptoms of a bigger problem,” Lunderville says in a summer of record heat and wildfire haze. “Irene was just the appetizer for the main course that’s yet to come if we don’t buckle down and start making changes.”

The exterior of the Wilmington town office features the high-water marks of 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene and the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Disclosure: Neale Lunderville is a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.

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