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Vermont Still Reeling From Unprecedented Devastation in Hurricane Irene’s Wake

Fri September 23, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

They braced for Hurricane Irene as expected, along the East Coast on Aug. 28 — from the Carolinas, to the New Jersey shore, through New York City and the New England states.

Two dozen people were killed along the Atlantic Seaboard. Untold millions of dollars of damage was caused. Hundreds of thousands were left without power (some still at this writing). Homes and bridges were washed away. This is what a hurricane does when it hits land hard. But in Vermont?

Helping Vermont

Before Tropical Storm Irene said “Good Night,” it had devastated entire counties in Vermont. According to the latest figures from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, 19 bridges have been closed, with 42 more bridges damaged and operating at a reduced carrying capacity. More than 200 mi. of road have been damaged, cracked or washed away.

The state’s southern infrastructure, beyond the uncountable amount of downed trees and tangled power lines, is crumbling. But help is on the way.

On Sept. 6, DOTs and other state agencies from as far as South Carolina sent armies of workers and a fleet of equipment to this small, landlocked state.

The Maine Department of Transportation has sent 150 employees to Vermont to help repair roads and bridges damaged by the tropical storm, along with a variety of excavators, loaders, graders, dump trucks and tons of other equipment, like wood cutters.

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said storm repairs are continuing in his state, but they are not as extensive as they are in the state to the west.

Earlier this month, MDOT workers left their Scarborough headquarters (and Plymouth and Augusta,) for White River Junction and Dummerston, Vt. They are working 14-hour shifts there, and may continue to do so for up to a month.

The men have had their work cut out for them. The team’s mission is to make some of those 200 mi. of roads passable. Vermont will have to hire contractors and bridge builders to do heavier work, once the hundreds of trees are cleared and the initial structure support is complete by October.

Maine officials have said that Maine is in a good position to help, since damage there was not as extensive, and road crews are in between seasons. Summer paving season is ending, and plowing season hasn’t begun.

Those 150 workers have been working 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week, until all is cleared and secured.

The Advance Team

“They’d do it for us. They’ve done it in the past,” said Adrian Pringle, one of the Maine DOT workers, to several of the TV stations that covered the day they moved out. “Mostly, [we’ll] repair the washouts. Try to repair the roads that have been washed away.”

“It’s a hardship for anybody to be stranded, especially for some of the towns we are headed to,” added Pringle. “The good news is, they have the National Guard down there, helping them out.”

Maine knew what they were getting into.

“We sent an advance team that went down on Saturday [Sept. 3]. [They] saw that first-hand. It was very sobering. So many people need help and we are going to help them,” said Don Hutchins of the Maine DOT.

Two teams, armed with an arsenal of loaders, excavators and dump trucks will not leave the neighboring state until they are finished.

“Our request came in for one to four weeks [of work],” Hutchins told a local TV station. They all did not have to go. Most have volunteered to work from dusk to dawn.

“I know we should always help our neighbors out,” added Pringle. “I don’t have any kids at home, so it’s a perfect time for me to go. My wife can take care of things at home.”

Money for the overtime is being paid by the Vermont Agency of Transportation. FEMA will be reimbursing Vermont eventually.

“Whatever Vermont wants us to do, that’s what we are going to do,” said Mining. “We’ve been through it here. We got [hammered] by a storm a few years ago, about the same as they did. So, we are going to help them. It’s bad over there.”

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt, in gathering his men together in a hangar on Sept. 6 before deploying them, added, “They are in dire need of our help. [We’ll] get them started. Facility trucks, wood cutting trucks, all the things they need.”

That same day, Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles told the driving public, especially those crossing opened but limited bridges and roads, to be very aware of post-Hurricane “tremors.”

These could appear suddenly over the next few weeks in the form of sink holes and “slope failures,” especially in the southern tier.

Repeated storms, the remnants of another tropical storm that came up the Gulf of Mexico through Louisiana, dumped many more inches of heavy rain on an already rain- drenched New England.

“We appreciate there are some long detours to take in light of roadway closures,” Searles said. “Trying to make the longer commute shorter by driving aggressively may cost you your life. Everyone’s focus needs to be on safety.”

Help From N.H., S.C.

The Maine crews have been sent to several locations, including Vt. Route 131 in Cavendish, where they will replace culverts, clear debris and repair shoulder washouts. Maine crews also have been dispatched to Route 100 in Jamaica and Wardsboro, where two teams will re-establish ditching and repair shoulder damage. Other crews will conduct a variety of tasks along Routes 100, 30, 11 and 10.

Other neighbors also are helping. According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, 10 New Hampshire crews with trucks arrived the week of Sept. 6, delivering 150 Jersey barriers to help cordon off dangerous roadway sections. The New Hampshire crews also will help repair segments of Vt. Route 131 and Route 106.

Although dealing with their own hurricane debris, South Carolina’s governor verbally authorized the state to deploy National Guardsmen, dump trucks and Humvees to Vermont to help the state recover from Irene. A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said she authorized the deployment of 50 National Guardsmen, 19 20-ton dump trucks and six Humvees. The order was made as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a multi-state aid agreement among states to share resources during disasters.

On Sept. 8, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that his request to add Windham County to the Individual Disaster Declaration was granted by FEMA. Windham, the southeast corner of the state, is the fifth Vermont county to qualify for federal aid to supplement state recovery efforts underway since the storm hit on Aug. 28.

President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster exists in Vermont and approved individual federal assistance for Windsor, Rutland, Washington and Chittenden counties, also on Sept 8.

“Extending aid to Windham County shows the federal assessors clearly understand the full scale of the storm and flood damage and are working closely with us to assist Vermonters through our recovery process,” Gov. Shumlin said in a statement.

Also under this declaration, state and local governments in 13 counties will be eligible for funds to help repair infrastructure damage, including schools and roads.

Remarkable Recovery

Vermont has shown remarkable skills in recovering power and access in the days following Irene’s blast. Roughly 118 sections of roads had been shut down immediately after the storm, but that number is down to less than two dozen (as of Sept. 12).

More than 50,000 people had lost power, but by Sept. 5, only a handful of homes were without electricity.

Another wonderful feature of the state, revered by “engineering buffs,” has suffered heavy losses as well. Hundreds of antique covered bridges, from Maine throughout the Eastern Seaboard, have been damaged by Hurricane Irene, including those concentrated and loved in Vermont.

The Quechee Bridge and the historic bridge over the Cox Brook in Northfield Falls, Vt., are among dozens that have been badly ripped up. Thousands of people have reported being horrified as they watched an amateur video online (YouTube), which shows the Bartonsville Bridge being washed away, virtually intact, into the Williams River on Sept. 4. It was built in 1871.

On Sept. 9, Gov. Shumlin appointed Neale Lunderville to run state recovery efforts. Lunderville, who served as Secretary of Administration and Secretary of Transportation under former Gov. Jim Douglas, takes a leave from his current position at Green Mountain Power.

According to a statement from the governor’s office, Lunderville will spearhead efforts: “To assist families and businesses, restore communities and rebuild infrastructure damaged by Tropical Storm Irene’s record flooding and high winds. He will facilitate major recovery efforts currently underway across Vermont between state agencies and departments, federal disaster response, and local authorities and organizations.”

Attempts were made to interview several crews on the ground in Vermont, but they pleasantly declined interviews because, to a man, they said, “We’ve got work to do. Sorry, we’re out clearing trees.”

David Hoyne, state construction engineer, Vermont Agency of Transportation, stated, “The effort to recover from this disaster has been inspiring at every level. The communities have rallied and volunteers have come from far and wide to help with the recovery. It is really neighbor helping neighbor with a sense of spirit and commitment to get the job done so folks can get back on their feet.

“There has been so much accomplished in the last several weeks but there is much work that lies ahead. A hint of fall is in the air now and everybody understands the urgency that the weather brings to this recovery. We have a short window to get the debris cleaned up, get the roads, bridges and rail lines up and running such that we have mobility through the winter months. Construction is tough here in the winter and we need to make sure our repairs are sustainable through the freeze thaw cycles and spring runoff.

“The staff on the front lines of this effort have put their lives on hold to get the job done. It is truly inspiring to have such dedicated and talented folks working very long hours to restore the infrastructure for the state of Vermont. When you observe these folks in action you quickly understand that the determination they have reflects the true character of the people involved.” CEG

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