Nancy Eve Cohen

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.

Nancy Eve Cohen for VPR

Since Tropical Storm Irene ripped through Wilmington, businesses there have worked hard to recover. And by some measures, the local economy now is better than before the flood.

Nancy Eve Cohen

In Bennington County this week people involved in economic development are focusing not on businesses, but on young people.

“Career Week” has elementary school children dressing up as who they want to be when they grow up. Community College of Vermont is offering free classes. And about two dozen professionals are meeting with high school students every day to talk about the education needed for a career.

But there’s another message for the county’s young people: please stick around!

Nancy Eve Cohen

More than two years after Tropical Storm Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is closing up shop in Vermont, leaving a state both frustrated by the agency’s bureaucracy and rebuilt by $250 million in federal aid.

The agency will continue to process buy-outs and reimbursements through its Boston office. 

The rules of the federal bureaucracy didn’t always mesh with the needs of small towns and people hard-hit by the flood.

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen

FEMA plans to it close its field office in Vermont at the end of next week. The agency says most of its work on the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene has been completed.

FEMA first set up a field office in the state months before Irene, in the spring of 2011 after severe storms flooded areas along Lake Champlain and across northern Vermont.

In the more than two years since Tropical Storm Irene hit the agency alone spent about $250 million in the state.

Nancy Eve Cohen

After Tropical Storm Irene, some property owners who lost everything were not approved for a federal buy-out. But last March the state said it would come up with the funding. The first state-funded buy-outs have gone through in Jamaica.

When floodwaters tore four houses off of Water Street in Jamaica, the homeowners lost everything. Soon after they were faced with another heartache. FEMA determined they weren’t eligible to be bought out with federal funds because their properties weren’t in what’s called a Special Flood Hazard Area on National Flood Insurance Rate maps.

Nancy Eve Cohen

A new video documentary about Tropical Storm Irene focuses on how rivers work and what can be done to reduce floods in the future.   

The film “After the Flood” opens with dramatic footage of floodwaters lashing the landscape on August 28 2011.

Sue Minter, who was the state’s Irene Recovery Officer, explains in the film what happened that day in the state’s hilly terrain.

“The rain that was falling added to what was coming down these valleys,” said Minter,  “became torrents of river that literally took over everything in its wake.”

Nancy Eve Cohen

Towns in Vermont are taking down flood-damaged properties through a FEMA-funded program. Some want to put parks or access to a river where the buildings once stood.

In Londonderry, a public meeting will be held Thursday night to discuss ideas that might reduce future flooding, including taking down a much-loved dam.

Below the Williams Dam, stone benches invite people to sit and drink in the power of the water.

Nancy Eve Cohen/ VPR

Vermont cities and towns have purchased 30 properties damaged in Tropical Storm Irene with FEMA funds and another 67 buyouts are in the pipeline. FEMA requires buildings get torn down and no permanent structures are built.

Some communities are starting to discuss how they'll use the land once they own it.

But what’s next after a buy-out isn’t the first thing residents in flood-damaged areas are saying, especially when they still see houses hanging over riverbanks, surrounded by debris.

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen

About 560 mobile homes were destroyed or damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont. That spurred affordable housing advocates to take a close look at the state’s mobile home housing stock. Now, a more durable mobile home is being manufactured in White River Junction.

Inside a former trucking terminal builder Steve Davis and his workers are nailing shingles onto the roof of a new kind of mobile home.

“We’re really well insulated,” said Davis. “We’re double the typical standard on our insulation, everywhere!”

This is the first of ten mobile homes Davis is building.

The Vermont Bowl Company, in Wilmington was flooded during heavy rains on Sunday and its two stores are still closed.

The company was also hit by floodwaters two years ago during Tropical Storm Irene.

Vermont Bowl Company Vice President Tom Fox says on Sunday the water came so fast and in such a short period of time, the culvert on the east side of his business was overwhelmed. Same thing with the culvert to the west, underneath Route 9

VPR/ Nancy Eve Cohen

In the two years since the flood, it’s been a tough journey for Vermonters as they process their trauma and loss.  Today many say they’re in a much better place. Several survivors in southern Vermont  recently spoke about what’s helped them move forward.

When the Deerfield River raged through Wilmington two years ago it left Bartleby’s Books a muddy mess. Owner Lisa Sullivan says right after the flood what helped her the most was getting things done.

“We needed to remove the dry wall. We needed to fix the front of the building,” recalled Sullivan.

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen

Two years ago Tropical Storm Irene inundated much of Vermont.  It was the beginning of a long recovery process that still continues.

Governor Peter Shumlin was in Wilmington Wednesday to mark the storm’s anniversary and release the final Irene Recovery Status report.

Downtown Wilmington was especially hard hit by the flood. The Deerfield River took over the main street, including the famous Dot’s Restaurant. But now there’s a bit of celebration in the air.

“Everybody say ‘Dot’s!’”

With today’s announcement about the closure of Vermont Yankee, residents in Windham County say the news is a mixed bag.

Some in the local community welcomed the news, while others are worried.

Besides generating electricity, Vermont Yankee also fuels the local economy. Laura Sibilia of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation said the closing is disheartening after years of a poor economy on top of the injuries from Tropical Storm Irene.

“It’s a little like, oooh! Enough with the body blows please!’”

Cities and towns and-nonprofit groups can still apply for federal funding to help communities recover from Tropical Storm Irene and other floods that took place in 2011 or 2012.

The money comes from the Competitive Grants Program, part of the Community Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds, provided by HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Jen Hollar, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said she expects to have about $8 million available for “community-driven” projects.

In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, nine committees formed around the state to help people get back into secure housing. Today some of those Long-Term Recovery Committees are still active, helping dozens of Vermonters who need assistance. Many intend to be in place for the next disaster.

When Tropical Storm Irene struck, those who could help in the Mad River valley traveled from house to house and farm to farm to see what was needed.

AP/Toby Talbot

In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene a number of groups sprung up to help people recover. The largest is the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.  The fund has distributed $3.4 million so far to help people rebuild.

While many recovery groups are wrapping up their work, the VDRF plans to stay active for future disasters.

The founders were thinking about forming the group even before Irene hit.

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen

Although it’s been nearly two years since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont, there are still people who are in the process of recovering. The state’s Disaster Case Management Program has about 180 cases open.

About half of those involve repairing or rebuilding flood-damaged homes.

Cheryl and Patrick Boucher’s house, next to the Wells River in Groton, is jacked up high and surrounded by rocks and rubble dug out from beneath it.

AP/Toby Talbot

Vermont’s Disaster Case Management Program, which helps people recover from Tropical Storm Irene, was supposed to wrap up its work at the end of August, by the second year anniversary of the flood.

But the program just got word FEMA will extend the program’s funding.

Bob Costantino, who directs the program, says there are still people recovering from Irene who are calling, for the first time, looking for help.

“People tended to say initially  ‘I don’t really need the help, help my neighbor’”, said Costantino. “And then people saw later on that they did need help.”

VPR- Nancy Eve Cohen

Most people who lost their home in Tropical Storm Irene have had access to some kind of government help. But for many of those whose land washed away there are fewer options.

On the day of the flood when Sheila and Russell Bartel tried to evacuate their home in Newfane, the Rock River was gushing halfway up their road. So they went back home.

“Figured O.K., we’ll just hunker down and ride it out,” recalled Sheila Bartel. But Russell looked down from the house and “saw the entire length of our property wash away.”

AP/Toby Talbot

Interactive Map of VCF Irene Funds

The morning after Irene, the phones at the Vermont Community Foundation didn’t stop ringing.

“We sat down as a whole staff,” recalled VCF President and CEO Stuart Comstock-Gay, “and said, ‘ Look, set aside all the other projects you’re working on right now. We’re focused on this for as long as we need to.’”

VCF is an umbrella organization for 600 mini foundations.

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