August 25, 2013

For Vermont, no goodnight, Irene, just yet

Two summers after the tropical storm dropped 11 inches of rain on the state, recovery efforts continue.

By WILSON RING The Associated Press

WALLINGFORD, Vt. - Two years after Tropical Storm Irene washed 10 acres of crops and an entire field of topsoil down a valley between the Vermont mountains, Evening Song Farm is distributing produce again. But it will be years, if ever, before the ground is productive again.

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Kara Fitzgerald stands at her new farm location in Shrewsbury, Vt. Two years after Irene washed away 10 acres of summer crops and topsoil, Evening Song Farm is back selling produce, thanks to borrowed money and land.

The Associated Press

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Cheryl Harvey of Harvey’s Plumbing and Excavating takes notes on a house to be demolished in Pittsfield, Vt.

The Associated Press

Kara Fitzgerald and Ryan Wood-Beauchamp now grow their crops on a hillside about a mile away. The soil there is damp and not as good as the bottom land along the river, but with careful attention, over time, it can get better.

Like thousands of Vermonters whose lives were forever changed by Irene, the 28-year-old vegetable farmers picked themselves up with help from strangers, a small amount of government assistance and a series of loans.

And work. Hard, never-ending work.

"In some ways we feel like the storm was yesterday. Our recovery is still full-on," Fitzgerald said one recent morning as she took a break from picking carrots. "It was a real good opportunity to throw in the towel."

Two summers after Irene dropped up to 11 inches of rain on parts of the Green Mountains, the state is nearing the end of its official recovery. The state and federal governments have spent more than $565 million to help Vermont recover -- not including private donations and money people spent on their own -- and the final bill is nowhere near ready to be counted.

There are still hundreds of people and businesses whose recovery is in progress and some are looking for permanent homes. Nevertheless, a series of celebrations and commemorations are planned for this week, starting on Wednesday's anniversary.

"It doesn't mean there isn't more work to do," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who will visit the hard-hit community of Wilmington on Wednesday and eat chili at Dot's, an iconic local restaurant all but destroyed by the storm but now a potent symbol of the town's resilience.

When Irene roared up the coast it killed at least 46 people in 13 states and a handful more in the Caribbean. The New York City area was largely spared.

But then the storm settled over the Green Mountains and Irene became the biggest natural disaster to hit Vermont since an epic 1927 flood.

Irene killed six in Vermont, left thousands homeless and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway. Of the state's 251 towns, 225 had infrastructure damage.

Thirteen communities were cut off from the outside world after flooding washed out roads, electricity and telephone communication. National Guard helicopters spent days ferrying supplies to stranded residents.

When the waters receded at last, the state created a Cabinet-level position to focus on recovery and opened nine long-term offices to help residents. More than 150 cases remain open.

Shumlin will stop in Waterbury on Thursday to talk about the state office complex, most of which was abandoned after the storm overflowed the Winooski River. The state has a $124 million plan for the complex that is waiting for funding.

Once housed in a leased building on the edge of the complex, the Hunger Mountain Children's Center is getting ready to start its third school year in a church that was supposed to be a temporary space. Although the day care's previous home only had water in the basement, the building remains empty, caught up in planning.

The center hopes to buy its old building and another next door so it can expand from its current enrollment of about 35 children, said business manager Amanda Olney.

"As devastating as it was to have to move all of our stuff out of that building and into the church and transition there, if it works and we are able to go back and expand it really has worked out for us," Olney said.

Evening Song Farm was in just its first season when Irene hit, forcing Fitzgerald and Wood-Beauchamp to evacuate. When they returned the next day, their house and barn were fine but a summer's worth of crops was gone.

"We lost everything down there. We had taken out a lot of loans to start the first farm. All our financial ability was now down the river," Fitzgerald said.

Within days they'd plowed up a fresh half-acre to plant garlic before the season ended and borrowed land to plant fast-growing greens for their customers.

"No one expected anything, but it was mostly for us to feel like we were still alive," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald and Wood-Beauchamp have since bought a neighboring plot. They're building a house, improving drainage and adding nutrients to the soil in hopes of better future yields.

Their recovery, despite being an inspiration for many neighbors, remains daunting.

"We're sad, we're exhausted, we don't feel whole," Fitzgerald said. "I'm looking forward to the day when I'm farming and not recovering from Irene."

 

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