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Irene Survivor Says Irene Has Taken Its Toll

Tropical Storm Irene temporarily or permanently displaced more than 1,400 people in Vermont.

76-year-old Evelyn Payette was one of them. If you drive along Route 100 in Pittsfield you can still see her bent and battered mobile home on the side or the road. 

Payette is one of 23 Vermont homeowners who have recently received a FEMA buyout. While the money is welcome, the nearly two years it’s taken to get has taken a toll.

I first met Payette last August standing outside what was left of her three-bedroom mobile home.   She pointed to a broken window where you could still see cheerful wallpaper inside. “That was the kitchen,” she said. “That was my bedroom over there and then along the hallway, where that window is cracked out, that was the small bedroom.”

Payette was at work when floodwaters tore through. She said that probably saved her life.

Neighbors rescued her beloved Chihuahua. “This is my dog Bandit,” she said, lifting him out of her car. “Come to mommy.” She held the 9-year-old dog close, and said he’s about the only thing she has left of her old life. 

Since the storm, Payette has had to downsize.  With her trailer home destroyed, she’s spent the last two years living in a group retirement home in nearby Rochester.

It’s the same place she’s worked as a cook for more than a decade and I walk up three flights of stairs to her small room.

Inside, Payette moves slowly from her bed to a chair.  She apologizes for the lack of space. “I had my home for 15 years,” she says sadly, “but now I have nothing. I have nothing but a room.”

Local and state officials told her early on she qualified for FEMA’s hazard mitigation buyout program, which would help her pay for a new home.  But it was never clear when the money would come and she says with each passing month, she became more anxious and depressed.

Before Irene, Payette’s job as a cook kept her busy and paid her mortgage. But the additional thousand dollars a month it cost to live at the group home was stretching her small salary to the breaking point.

“I’m a diabetic,” Payette says, “and I feel that my health is breaking down.  It’s no fun to sit in a room, with a little TV. It’s not like if you’ve always been a homemaker and then you have nothing.”  

Things went from bad to worse when painful arthritis forced her to stop working and have knee replacement surgery. “To tell you the truth,” Payette says, “I need to retire.  I’m 76 and if I make it (sigh) I don’t know, it’ll be tight.”

On July 31st, Payette finally caught a break.  The long awaited check from FEMA arrived. 

Payette says the money will help her buy a small two-bedroom mobile home she’s had her eye on.  It’s cream colored with blue shutters and has plenty of space for her and Bandit. “I can’t wait for my home,” she says finally smiling. “It’s been such a long time coming - at one point I just gave up hope - I had nothing to look forward to.”  “But,” says Payette, “they promised me it’s coming, so I hope that things will be different.”

Back in Pittsfield, Don Flynn sorts through paperwork at the town office.  Flynn is Pittsfield’s volunteer FEMA coordinator, and he says Payette and three other homeowners in town received buyouts. 

Their battered homes have stood like open wounds along Route 100, and Flynn says now the town can finally clear them away. “We have requests for bids out to remove the buildings and smooth out the area.  The town now owns the property,” he says, so they can never sell it or build on it.” 

Town Clerk Patty Haskins says the plan is to turn the nearly 3 acres of land into a park. It’s an idea many in town like, but she says there are some people who think the ruined homes should be left standing as a sort of memorial.

Haskins says she understands that, but admits she’s ready to move on, hard as that might be. “You think you’re past it,” says Haskins. “But there’s such a personal stake in it, because you knew all the people who’s homes were damaged or who lost all their belongings and their homes.” 

She pauses and her eyes well up with tears.  “There’s definitely still an emotional big piece of it that’s personal and still painful,” she says, even two years later.”

One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
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