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Is Vermont Ready For Another Tropical Storm Irene?

Evrita Crosby
Shirley Earle's trailer washed away when the Saxtons River flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. Vermont has come a long way in recovering from that storm, but there's still work to be done in preparing for the next one.

It's been five years since Tropical Storm Irene dumped its record rainfall over Vermont. The state has come a long way in both recovering from that big storm and preparing for the next one, but there's still work to be done across the state.One of the most important steps in making sure properties are not impacted by another storm is removing structures from the path of flooded rivers.

Shirley Earle lost her home in Irene, and she took part in the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

The federal program gives money to towns and cities so they can purchase properties that have been damaged in floods.

Earle says she lived in Rockingham, along the Saxtons River, for more than 30 years, and the property was supposed to be a place she would leave to her family.

But after Irene there was nothing left.

"It's not something I wanted to do, but it wasn't a hard decision to make," she says. "Too much of our land was gone. The flood took it away."

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Shirley Earle, left, and her daughter Evrita Crosby, visit the site where Earle's house was before Tropical Storm Irene.

Kevin Geiger is a senior planner with the Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission, and he led the FEMA buyout program in Vermont following Tropical Storm Irene. He says the program does a good job of removing structures from the path of future floods.

"The general idea of the program is to avoid future disaster costs,"  he says. "It's much easier to pay you one time to never put it back, and for nobody to ever put it back. So you're whole and nobody is ever going to do this again. You know, that headache is over."

When all of the buyouts are done, the state will have about 150 fewer headaches.

'I see flooded houses'

But Geiger says that doesn't mean there won't be more property loss — or worse — during the next flood.

That's because the FEMA program only pays for homes that have already been damaged in disasters.

Geiger says as he drives around Vermont he routinely comes across homes and businesses that are in harm's way.

"A lot of people wrongly view the fact that we had Irene as meaning we're not going to have another ... That'll happen again, and it'll happen way sooner than they think it's going to happen." - Kevin Geiger, Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission

"There's that movie The Sixth Sense, where the little kid says, 'I see dead people.' So, when I drive around, I see flooded houses," Geiger says. "But to tell that to people, to literally knock on their door and say, 'You should really move now.' They don't believe it. A lot of people wrongly view the fact that we had Irene as meaning we're not going to have another Irene. Like, 'Oh, that will never happen again.' No. That'll happen again, and it'll happen way sooner than they think it's going to happen."

It'll happen, because it's happened for decades.

Last year, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development looked at how flooding has historically affected the Vermont economy.

The state put out a report more than 700 pages long, and it identified five communities that could make investments now toward future flood preparedness.

Barre was near the top of the list.

Proactive upgrades

The city is about to undertake a $1.1 million project to prevent future flooding around the Harrington Avenue Bridge, which goes over Gunner's Brook.  

During major floods, debris gets trapped in the narrow channel, and the state identified this bridge as one of its top priorities in preventing further economic disruption during a flood.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Barre City Manager Steven Mackenzie walks across the Harrington Avenue Bridge in Barre. Racks are being installed up river to prevent debris from washing down during a flood.

City Manager Steven Mackenzie says the million-dollar project includes installing racks upstream that will catch the debris, allowing water to flow through Barre in a more controlled manner.

"It's a start," he says. "I mean, this is something I think Barre, like most municipalities, will probably be working on for 20 to 25 years. But we have to start some place. We made the decision to be very proactive and that's what we're doing.

That's $1 million for one bridge, in a state that saw damage to more than 300 local and state bridges during Irene.

Incomplete preparation

If you want to get an idea of just how much work still needs to be done, visit Ben Rose in his office at the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Waterbury.

Rose coordinated the Irene recovery program, and now he oversees the ongoing mitigation work across the state.

There's a white board on his office wall where Rose keeps track of the towns and cities that have completed their hazard planning work.

Five years after Irene hit Vermont, only about half of the jurisdictions have approved plans.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Only about half the towns and cities in the state have their hazard mitigation plans approved five years after Tropical Storm Irene.

Rose says that's a big improvement, but some towns either don't have the resources, or are unwilling, to take part in planning.

"The state has done a good job in responding to and learning from Tropical Storm Irene," he says. "A lot of positive change has occurred and there's an infinite amount of work still ahead of us."

And even though there are challenges, Rose says the improvements to the state's infrastructure are making a difference.

But Rose isn't making any promises.

"We're much better prepared for the next Irene," Rose says. "The problem is, the next thing will not exactly be the next Irene. It'll  be something else, and we'll find out how well prepared we are for it when it happens."

So, the work continues.

After Irene, the state adopted the unofficial motto "Vermont Strong." And the state and federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars making our bridges and culverts more resistant to flooding.

But the projected path of the next flood is as wild and unpredictable as a raging river.

And no one knows exactly where the water will end up.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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