Just One More Irene Recovery Project Left In Waterbury, After Children's Center Relocates

Mar 24, 2017

The Hunger Mountain Children’s Center in Waterbury is celebrating a move back into its newly renovated space. The center was forced to relocate after Tropical Storm Irene and, as it turns out, it’s one of the town's last remaining Irene recovery projects.

The babies, toddlers and preschoolers at Hunger Mountain Children's Center are far too young to remember the center's old building, on Main Street, in front of the Waterbury state office complex. In fact, there are no kids in the newly renovated building who were alive when Tropical Storm Irene blew in five-and-a-half years ago.

But Executive Director Amanda Olney remembers.

"We originally had been in one of the buildings that we currently occupy for about 30 years," Olney explains. "And then Tropical Storm Irene happened, back in 2011. And the building we were in, I believe there was 6 feet of water. So it was just in the basement. It didn’t come up to the first floor. But because it was a state-owned building, we had to leave because the rest of the state complex was shut down."

The nonprofit found temporary space in a church in Waterbury Center. And the board got to work on a plan to buy its old building from the state. And when the building next door became available, they bought that too.

"We knew we wanted to expand – that was one of our goals," she says. "So in order to do that, we grabbed both of the buildings which were offered to us, which was great. It was really hard to find anywhere else that would hold 45 to 65 kids and 12 staff members."

Two-year-olds in Hunger Mountain's 'Wiggle Worms' class are on the lookout for a leprechaun, after noticing someone turned the toilet water green.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Renovating and connecting the two buildings was a big project for the child care center. Olney said it took all of the organization’s savings, as well as a loan and a federal community development block grant that was available for Irene-related projects.

Coordinating federal, state and local purse strings for flood recovery projects is a big job. And for most of Waterbury’s post-Irene projects, that job fell to Long-term Community Recovery Director Barbara Farr.

In addition to the children’s center relocation, Waterbury has built a new municipal complex, elevated businesses and homes out of the flood plain and created affordable housing.

And the state office complex in town has been flood-proofed, restored and mostly repopulated. Farr says it looks great.

"The whole state office complex is absolutely gorgeous," she says. "They took down the worst of the old buildings. And they modernized it; they flood-proofed it. They filled in all the tunnels that were underground. And they brought back over 1,000 people to come back in. So it’s just amazing."

The white markers on the corner of this Elm St. business show the high water marks for two major flood events. The lower marker is from Tropical Storm Irene in Aug. 2011. The marker between the second story windows is from the Nov. 1927 flood.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

But Farr says there’s still one major Irene recovery project to go before she can hang up her hat as Long-term Recovery Director. Some private homes are enrolled in a pilot project, where the homeowners use federal money to help pay for elevating their houses and making them better able to withstand future flooding.

The work’s already been done on one home, but Farr says the project didn’t go smoothly, and some other homeowners backed out.

"We had eight more homes that were going to be part of the project, and as this elevation was occurring last summer and last fall, four of the homes dropped out," says Farr. "And so we're left with four homes that are still in the program. They're on Randall Street. Three of them are historic and the fourth one contributes to the historic district."

Because of the historic designations, Farr says there are added requirements, such as an historic preservation report, archeological test pits and architectural renderings of the elevated historic properties.

"It's been a long, long process," she adds.

The four houses remaining in the pilot home elevation project are all on Randall Street.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

And it will take a while longer for the projects to be completed. Each house is different and requires a customized plan of action. In general, utilities need to be moved out of the basement, the foundation has to be raised, and flood vents installed so any floodwater that does get in will flow back out.

In the case of the house elevated last summer, that required taking the house completely off the foundation and eventually returning it to a foundation that was built up 3 feet higher.

Farr says she's currently working on updated cost estimates for the four remaining houses, taking into consideration lessons learned from the first home elevation. Previous estimates, which are now almost four years old, average around $170,000 per house. And Farr expects that figure to go up.

"The homeowners contribute 25 percent of the total cost, and if the homeowners decide that they want to go forward, that's their call," she says.

If the remaining home elevations are completed this summer, Waterbury could be finished with Irene recovery projects sometime around the sixth anniversary of the storm.