More Than 4 Years Later, Vermont Is Still Repairing Damage From Irene

Apr 8, 2016
Originally published on April 8, 2016 12:12 pm

It's been more than four and a half years since Tropical Storm Irene, and across Vermont, there are still more than two dozen infrastructure projects that haven't been completed.

Now, as the new construction season opens, state officials say they'll continue chipping away at the Irene project list.

The southern Vermont town of Jamaica has just recently re-opened a bridge that was destroyed in the storm.

Carol Cantwell lives on Goodaleville Road in Jamaica, and the bridge over the Winhall River has been out since Irene.

For the past four and a half years, Cantwell and her neighbors have taken the long way into South Londonderry.

She says word spread quickly when the bridge re-opened.

"You know, it went out on Facebook almost immediately, 'The bridge is open,'" she says, laughing.

When Irene hit, Cantwell was one of the last to go over the bridge when she evacuated. And by the time she settled in back at home, the bridge couldn't be used.

She says that broken river crossing was a reminder of Irene's fury.

"I think a lot of us just thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is just the way it's going to be,'" she says. "It was a process. They couldn't tell us when, but they just said they were working on it ... they have another meeting, they're going to go back with some different reports. And it was much more than it was supposed to be."

It ended up being much more than it was supposed to be because FEMA and the state had different ideas on how to put Vermont back together again.

"The real problem was the state had a set of regulations that needed to be met and FEMA had its own regulations that needed to me met," says Paul Fraser, who lead Jamaica's recovery effort. "And they were in conflict ... for about three years."

Before Irene the Jamaica bridge was 68 feet long but state standards required a longer replacement bridge.

But FEMA doesn't like to pay for upgrades, so Fraser says Jamaica just had to continue pleading its case.

"None of us had a clue when this hit what we were facing," says Fraser. "Originally FEMA guessed at about a $5 million damage. Think about that. We've got a $500,000 budget for our roads. Five million dollars of damage. That's overwhelming. It completely destroyed the town. So clearly we needed FEMA. Clearly we will play the game by their rules ... I'm not complaining about it at all, it's just a grind."

Other towns are still grinding, too: There are about 30 unfinished projects still around the state from Irene.

Ben Rose, the recovery and mitigation chief at the Vermont Department of Public Safety, knows some towns are discouraged, even though the state has come a long way.

"If you're one of the towns that has one of those projects, it's frustrating to not have the repair done four years later," he says. "If you're FEMA, or a national emergency management type looking at Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, you'd say, 'That's an amazingly small number.'"

Even under the best circumstances, dealing with FEMA involves a tangle of documentation and reporting. So when Vermont started requesting more money to improve its flood resiliency, Rose says some of the projects slowed to a crawl.

"We started in a very bad place with FEMA," Rose says. "And the first year and a half were a fairly adversarial process with FEMA on many of these projects."

The state just continued meeting with the federal disaster relief agency on projects. And in the end, Vermont officials often negotiated a way out with the help of some state and local money. At this point, more than two-thirds of the Irene-damaged infrastructure has been upgraded.

Rose says the relationship with FEMA has improved since Irene. There are still details to work out between the federal agency and state river engineers on some projects, but the process is moving forward.

He says it should be another busy construction season.

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