This week the nation is recognizing the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But this week also marks the anniversary of another mega-storm that tracked across our region four years ago today.
“The most intense memory, and it still chokes me up actually, is the next morning looking at the faces of the folks that had experienced damage or loss of property dumbfounded. And I think that’s what sticks in my head the most. Just looking at these people wondering what do we do next?”
On August 28th, 2011, Town of Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee was Vice-Chair of the Essex County, New York Board of Supervisors. It was the day that Hurricane Irene slammed into northern New York and Vermont. Ferebee says the county is working with NY Rising and believes it will take several more years to recover. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. All through Essex County we’re still working to recover to, if you call it, normal. I don’t think we’ll ever be back to normal normal because there’s so much debris and things in the rivers that we just never will be able to clean the rivers up.”
In Vermont six people were killed. Roads, businesses and over 7,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Over 3,500 families received FEMA individual assistance totaling $22 million. Only last week state officials displayed ongoing construction at the state’s largest ever capital project - a new state office complex in Waterbury, which had been flooded by the Winooski River during Irene.
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin appointed an Irene Recovery Officer in the wake of the storm. Neale Lunderville said the initial reports did not prepare him for his first tour of the damage. “When I went out with Governor Shumlin on the first weekend after I was appointed we toured the damage and my eyes popped out of my head. It was a catastrophe the likes I’d never seen in Vermont. Just Mother Nature rolling into these small communities nestled in the Green Mountains and destroying them. Just utter destruction as if bombs went off. Nothing could really prepare me for that.”
Lunderville, who is now the General Manager of the Burlington Electric Department, says it’s remarkable so many physical pieces of damage were repaired so quickly. “But we knew that the scars that Tropical Storm Irene left really ran a lot deeper. The communities that, and the individuals that, were affected by it in many cases it was catastrophic and it takes a lot of time for individuals and communities to heal and to really get back on their feet. It’s going to take many more years until we’re really back to our pre-Irene levels in a lot of the places that were hit by it.”
Vermont Emergency Management Recovery and Mitigation Chief Ben Rose says four years on, recovery continues in many areas. “For a visitor it looks like everything is back together. We’re now down to sort-of the tough nuts and the difficult cases. We’re more than 90-percent of the way through the work load. I should also say that we’re focusing here on FEMA public assistance which is only one of the funding components associated with the recovery. There was also federal highway money. The federal highway response and the state Agency of Transportation response was immediate and remarkable. And then there are still people who are experiencing profound personal impacts from this storm.”
Again Neale Lunderville: “Irene was a once in a many generation occurrence. Let’s certainly hope and pray that it stays that way.”