When Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont two weeks ago, Vermont’s highway crews were on the front lines of the disaster. Throughout the night of the storm, I was in contact with men and women who were battling floods and torrential rain to close unsafe roads and try to assess damage to bridges and highways, often at great personal risk. The work of these highway maintenance workers during and after the flood has been nothing short of heroic. They’ve showed how much we Vermonters are capable of when the chips are down.
That’s what gives me hope that we, as a state and as your transportation agency, will get through this.
To illustrate how far we’ve come since Irene tore through Vermont: Immediately after the storm, there were 166 closures on the Vermont State Highway System. By Sept. 8, only 33 roads and 14 bridges were closed.
As amazing and dedicated as our highway workers are, they couldn’t accomplish what they have by themselves. Just as I’ve witnessed neighbors helping neighbors in devastated areas, states are helping states. The Departments of Transportation from Maine and New Hampshire, the New Hampshire and Maine National Guard units and private contractors have teamed up under VTrans leadership and reopened 340 miles of the 450 miles of state highway that were closed after the storm.
Last week, I had a chance to greet the Maine soldiers in Rutland and after thanking them their commanding officer came over to me. “This is every bit as beneficial to us as it is to Vermonters,” Lt. Col. Normand Michaud told me. New Englanders are in this together. He said his troops were eager to be here and to stay until the job is done.
While we have made remarkable progress in a short time, Vermonters need to understand that many of our roads and highways will not be the same as they were before the storm.
We are working around the clock to restore our highways, but due to the emergency nature of these repairs, there will be rough sections of road even though they are open. When you see road signs warning of rough areas, it is essential that you slow down. We are working hard to get you where you want to go, but you may need extra time to travel these reconstructed routes.
To allow us to work quickly, motorists should not make unnecessary trips through our work zones in storm-damaged areas. Even though many roads are open, working around vehicles hampers our construction crews.
Our top priority as we rebuild our infrastructure is the safety of those adversely impacted by the flooding. Our first focus was establishing connections to those communities that were isolated by flooding – we achieved that goal within two days. While VTrans is charged with maintaining the state highways, we know that there are still small pockets that are still isolated within some towns. We are providing assistance to these towns to help in their recovery efforts, but repairs to smaller town roads and bridges may take longer.
Opening up the important east-west state highways of Route 4 and Route 9 is a priority so that we can improve the movement of people, goods, services and commerce. We are on track to have both roads open in the next week.
Our commitment to Vermont is that we will rebuild our transportation infrastructure better than it was before. This will take time: As I have crisscrossed the state in the past two weeks, I have witnessed significant devastation, and we still are uncovering damage that was not immediately apparent.
Our immediate goal is to rebuild the state highway system to a level that provides safe transport for Vermonters and visitors during the upcoming winter. We need to ensure that these highways are safe for travel and that we can maintain them during the harsh winter weather that we all know is coming. This is no small task, but we believe we can accomplish it as long as we all work together – neighbor helping neighbor, state helping state.
As Governor Shumlin has said, “We will do this, together.”
We have a lot of work to do, but we are up to the task. We are, after all, Vermonters.