Irene's End Is In Sight For Northfield Couple

May 16, 2013

Jimmie Clark rakes the yard by a home raised on blocks following Tropical Storm Irene on Water Street in Northfield.
Credit AP/Toby Talbot

Several dozen people who lost their homes to tropical Storm Irene nearly two years ago are only now starting to get the money they need to get back on their feet. The town of Northfield plans to buy 13 properties where homes were destroyed.

After two long winters, the leaves have turned green again here on Water Street. You can still see signs of Irene. ‘No Trespassing’ signs hang in the windows of empty homes. There’s still silt covering most of the lawns here.

On a recent afternoon, Bonnie Pemberton walked around the home where she and her husband Mike lived for 34 years before Irene. 

"This room really got nailed," Pemberton said, stepping into the living room stripped to its studs. “The door casing that you see missing: the kids growing up we measured their heights and everyone in the neighborhood is on there and that’s one thing that we popped off and took with us.”

Twenty-one months since the storm, Pemberton said she’s excited that she’s about to get a check from the town to buy out this property.

“It’s a huge relief," she said. "It’s like it’s finally, finally happening. FEMA’s money for us is going to be a big help but there’s still a lot of unmet needs.”

For months, buying a new home and furniture, saving for vacations and retirement have been put on hold.

That’s because the recovery process has been sluggish. FEMA approved giving money to towns to buy out 74 homes. But so far, only four homeowners in Bethel, Bolton, Plymouth and now Northfield have gotten any money.

Under FEMA’s buyout program, the federal government covers up to 75 percent of a home's value. That allows towns to turn property located in a floodplain into green space.

"That program is moving as fast as it has ever moved," said Michele Braun, Northfield's Zoning Administrator. "And that just isn’t very fast.”

Braun said she's overwhelmed with the buyouts on Water Street. “To do 13 of them, all at one time, in an incredibly stressful disaster response context has been hard.”

The goal, Braun said, is to mitigate future flooding and make Northfield more flood resilient.

In the meantime, the Legislature passed a bill requiring towns to include flood mitigation as part of their town plans. House Speaker Shap Smith said earlier this week the state should do even more.

"We need to make sure that rivers have enough room to flow over the banks when we see these kinds of extreme weather events," Smith explained. "What we have to do is try to encourage people not to be building in flood plains.”

Though FEMA has agreed to partner with the state, Smith said it’s been discouraging to watch the recovery process move so slowly when people are in need. 

Back on Water Street, Bonnie Pemberton locks up her family’s home for one of the last times. She closes her eyes and imagines sitting in the backyard of their new home, watching the summer sun set over the Green Mountains, sipping orange juice and vodka.

“It will be Absolut. Mike will be beer," Pemberton said laughing. "Yeah, that will be it."

That will be when she can finally exhale. Their new home, Pemberton said, is on a hillside – not near any water, not even close.