Officials assess damage, begin planning recovery from Irene
NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON — Daylight in Southern Vermont Monday exposed receding flood waters but also provided a clearer picture of widespread damage from raging rivers caused Sunday by Irene’s heavy rains.
State and local officials across the state were surveying damage Monday and beginning to plan for restoring public and private infrastructure. Roads and bridges across a large swath of the state were washed out or compromised. Flood waters washed out homes businesses, and several people were missing or already confirmed dead, including a young woman in Wilmington, who was swept away by the violent, angry Deerfield River.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin had already declared a state of emergency, and President Barack Obama followed suit Monday morning, signing a disaster declaration because of the statewide devastation.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Michael Dubie toured the affected areas of the state by helicopter Monday. They touched down in Bennington around 3 p.m. after an aerial view of Bennington and Windham Counties, two of the hardest hit areas of the state.
“It’s just devastating – the human loss. As you know, we’re continuing to receive more bad news about some casualties. Our hearts go out to the families that have lost loved ones. But then you have the extraordinary property loss – houses, businesses, churches, roads and bridges, rail infrastructure. This is unprecedented, I think, in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “We still are notifying family members of some of the casualties, but I can tell you that we have more bad news coming in terms of deaths as a result of this horrific storm.”
It was too early Monday to determine the cost of damages, how long it would take to recover, or even which town was impacted the most, Shumlin said.
“The bottom line is Vermont was devastated from the Massachusetts border all the way up through central Vermont and it’s hard to pick the biggest loser,” he said. “It’s multiple millions of dollars. This is the greatest natural disaster to hit Vermont, certainly in 80 years, perhaps ever, and we’re going to work together.”
Shumlin and Leahy said federal help has been promised by the White House.
“President Obama has been standing by our side the entire way,” Shumlin said. “The president is very concerned about Vermont and we expect that he’s going to come through for us. He’s just been a great partner.”
“The White House told my office, and made it very clear, they are prepared to help. Whatever the governor wants, whatever I want, they’ll do it. The governor’s office is working around the clock on this, my staff in Vermont and Washington, are working along with them,” Leahy said. “This is something where we know we have the White House on our side. That’s one of the most comforting thoughts we have.”
Meanwhile, the Roaring Branch in Bennington was about 25 feet wider Monday morning, cutting into the north side of the river near the Brooklyn Bridge. Highway crews worked Sunday to stabilize a floodwall on the south bank where two large sink holes emerged, threatening its integrity.
Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd said the federal emergency declaration by the president will allow the town to seek 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government. Hurd said work on the flood wall will likely exceed $2 million. Cleaning up the river and shoring up the banks will require “months or longer,” he said.
Necessary road work will have “an incredible impact on this year’s budgets,” Hurd said. “The highway budget will probably suffer dramatically, initially,” he said.
Town Highway Superintendent R.J. Joly told Select Board members at an emergency meeting Monday evening that work had begun on restoring town roadways. “Today we’re fixing everything we can fix,” he said. “We’ve had a busy day and a busy night.”
The town was facing a looking water crisis, as well. The water department tapped a 3 million gallon water tank on Chapel Road for potable water after the mainline from the water filtration plant in Woodford snapped under a collapsed bridge on Route 9. Officials found another 100 feet of broken pipe Monday as water receded.
Residents had already used 1 million gallons of the water tank by late Monday afternoon. The Morgan Spring can pump 1 million gallons per day, but does not have enough pressure to reach the town’s highest elevations, Hurd said. Hurd and Select Board officials said residents must conserve water and refrain from laundry, car washing and other
“I’m expecting that we’ve got a day-and-a-half, two days, maybe, for the main part of town and the hospital to get this fixed” before water begins to run out,” said Water Resources Superintendent Terry Morse.
He said Vermont Pure, which has a contract to pump water from Morgan Spring, will provide tanker trucks if needed to provide higher elevations with water.
However, the town may be able to construct a temporary pipeline to reconnect the town with the water plant, Hurd said. “We’re very, very hopeful now that we’ll be able to get the water system back online in the next 24 to 36 hours,” he said.
Additionally, crews working on the Bennington Bypass project have agreed to refocus their efforts on restoring the pipeline, according to Morse.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said he had arranged for a tractor-trailer filled with bottled water from Walmart to be available to residents on Tuesday. Families will be able to pick up a case of water at the Bennington Fire Facility with identification showing they are a resident.
Town officials began consulting with state Agency of Transportation officials about the possibility of a temporary span over the Roaring Branch in Woodford. The road is a major artery in and out of Bennington on the east side.
Several other bridges remained closed Monday, including Park Street, Silk Road and the Brooklyn Bridge. Engineers will need to assess their integrity before they can be reopened, Hurd said. All of the area’s covered bridged survived the high waters. The Silk Road Bridge sustained water about two feet up its side.
“It is unlikely the covered bridges, the Park Street Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge will open any time soon,” Hurd said.
Residents and businesses began assessing their properties, as well. Dozens of homes along the Walloomsac and Roaring Branch Rivers were impacted. None were completed destroyed in Bennington, though, Hurd said. At least two homes along the Roaring Branch in Woodford appeared to be lost.
Many area residents continued pumping water from basements and cleaning mud and silt that was swept up from the rivers.
A Red Cross shelter at the Mount Anthony Union Middle School housed about 190 people at its peak Sunday night, according to Doucette. The shelter, run by the Red Cross, had only 50 cots initially. The Southwestern Vermont Medical center provided 50 more, he said.
“Some people gave up their cots for the older people and they slept on the floor,” Doucette said.
Hurd said the town should look into two separate shelters in the future because of potential for the Roaring Branch to close down so many bridges. “The Roaring Branch nearly cut us in two and that would have been very unfortunate,” he said.
Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said more than 260 roads were closed around the state, and 30 state highway bridges. He said agency staff were planning to work around the clock to establish safe detours.
“Our number one priority right now is the safety of the public,” Searles said. “We are currently rebuilding what roads we can address most quickly, and prioritizing resources on those communities that have been cut off from the rest of the state.”
Despite images of destruction emerging from around the state, including Wilmington, where much of the downtown appears to be destroyed, Shumlin promised the area would recover.
“It’s just widespread devastation and it breaks your heart,” he said. “Vermonters are tenacious and tough. If we stick together we’ll get the through this, but it’s going to be tough.”
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org