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Six Months After Irene Slammed Vt. Recovery Rate Labeled ’Astonishing’

Thu March 01, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Alicia Laguarda

“Water is a solid.”

We are not used to thinking that way about water. That statement turns things upside down — which is what happened in Vermont last August, when Irene hit the state. The equal opportunity flood ravaged trailers and fancy vacation homes, highways and backroads, libraries and bars — and bridges, old and new.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a real life visit to some of the areas damaged by the floods that followed Irene is worth a thousand pictures. Being there is the only way you can feel the brutal contrast between one house standing as if nothing had happened, next to what’s left from another that was swept away, just the roof and a mangled swing set next to the foundation, indicating a place that at one time a family had called “home.”

Six months have made a difference, though. At a pace that astonishes the visitor, considering the immensity of the work that needed to be done, many roads have been repaired and others at least made passable; bridges are being rebuilt and everyday life seems to have resumed a little more.

It’s All About People

What has made all that possible? People. That’s the answer that you get from construction company CEOs and from their machine operators; from equipment dealers and from their service technicians; from out-of-state temporary workers and from longtime Vermont business people. Across the board, you hear about people coming through, doing the right thing, going the extra mile, pushing themselves, understanding that an emergency requires both outside the box thinking and beyond the ordinary behavior, and remembering the importance of saying “thank you” … that’s what’s making the difference.

The examples are big and small, and together they tell a powerful story of cooperation.

“Companies that usually compete have come together; we’re sharing equipment, relying on each other’s expertise, working side by side,” said Greg Markowski, president of Florence, Vt., company Markowski Excavating Inc., while Doug Casella, president of Casella Construction agreed and added, “The state government has done a great job, they understood the situation and they have given us real support.”

John Casella Jr., Doug’s nephew and equipment service manager at the company, also stressed the impact of the state of Vermont’s strategy.

“Since so many of the roads and the bridges were gone, just mobilizing the equipment was one of the biggest challenges; by smoothing the permit process during the first few months, the state allowed us to get a lot of work done, a lot faster.”

Getting your hands, ASAP, on the equipment needed to perform the work could have been a serious challenge; here again, people’s attitude changed things around.

“We were able to get equipment from all over our territory to meet the needs of the crews doing the repairs; large excavators for example were, and still are, in big demand to move the huge rocks that have been carried by the flooded river and are blocking the water from flowing naturally,” said Milton CAT Vermont Sales Manager Joe Shattie.

Parts availability became a key factor, and Milton CAT Parts and Service Sales Representative Rod Small knows that some of them, like bucket teeth, will wear very fast because they are being used on hard stone surface, so he has to be ready to provide new ones very fast.

Last but not least, operators and service technicians are a hot commodity under those demanding circumstances.

The challenge was solved creatively, again, due to people’s willingness to go the extra mile. In a show of solidarity, the state of Maine sent crews to support their Vermont peers; Milton CAT shuffled service technicians around to provide coverage for their Vermont customers, and Doug Casella said that they have brought operators from other states, putting other jobs on hold while the first stages of the Vermont emergency were handled.

Commitment to the Test

When Greg Markowski is asked what the biggest challenge has been, he quipped, “The hours,” telling how for the first several months, many of his people had to work seven days a week, around the clock. He went on to say how proud he is of his team and how they all stepped up — “They are some of the best.”

Markowski also has had to crank up what he needs in terms of support for his equipment.

“We’ve had Tyler Abare, one of the service technicians from Milton CAT, pretty much live here for the past two months, committed to us for whatever we need.”

John Casella’s example illustrates the effective combination of dedication and ingenuity. According to him, it was 2:00 p.m. on Sunday before Labor Day weekend, and it had started to rain. A link broke in one of their excavators, and the machine was stuck in a riverbed. A phone call to Small at Milton CAT started things moving.

“It should have been in a movie” is how Casella described the events, and he recounted how there were light towers, a crane, workers with flashlights wading in the water… and how service technician Gary Stanley’s ingenuity saved the day.

“We finally were able to wrap a chain around the machine, and we got it out of danger well after dark.”

Coming Together

Those words permeate the stories Greg Markowski and Doug and John Casella tell about their experiences working through the Irene flood damage.

“People would wave, blow their horns, and hand us water, cookies, even dollar bills,” said Markowski; and Doug Casella as well as his nephew, John, spoke about how companies worked like one team, putting competitiveness aside. “Everyone bought in, there was a true community feeling,” said John, and he ended, simply, with this comment — “While it was a devastating event for our area, the recovery has been a unifying experience for many of us.”

Yes there’s still a lot to be done, and the urgency of course is the weather. Winter is here and snow and freezing temperatures will make the work much more difficult, if not impossible. That awareness keeps everyone on their toes. The next push will demand a lot from people and from machines, but considering the past performance, there’s a good chance that they will come through. Once again.

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