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Editorial: ‘Indomitable’ Vermonters will rise to meet challenges of storm’s destruction

For the moment, Gov. Peter Shumlin is chief consoler for those most directly affected by Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding, cheerleader to boost the state’s important tourism economy, and primary care doctor — treating as many ailments as possible as he goes town-to-town.
In each of these meetings he reassures community members that the state and federal governments are working as quickly as they can to get things back to normal, and then he offers a few words of hope and inspiration.
“I’m so proud of all of you,” the governor told a group of 20-plus volunteers and community leaders assembled Wednesday noon at the Hancock Volunteer Fire Department. “The fact that we are where we are right now is a real testament to the hard work that is being done by Vermonters helping each other all across the state… When I flew over this area a week ago, this part of the state was a mess… I thought it might be six months before we had it all cleaned up. But with all of your help, we’re going to get things moving again far sooner than we ever imagined. Only in Vermont would that be possible!”
Still, it’s going to be a haul, and the governor and community members know it. The damage, in places, was devastating. Estimates suggest 700 homes were lost, along with numerous businesses, miles of roads hundreds of bridges. State and federal emergency officials are still working on a cost estimate 10 days after the worst of the flooding occurred — with new reports coming in daily.
Beyond the immediate concerns of how to help those most in need and what can each of us do as volunteers, longer-term questions are rising to the fore.
• How can individuals afford to rebuild? While grants of roughly $30,000 are available to some and greatly appreciated, and low-interest loans most welcome, many families who have lost their homes — and a lifetime of savings — and were without insurance (most don’t have it) will face real hardships to build anew. Should the state offer more help and, if so, how?
• Can we expect towns to reassess road-building strategies and consider the rains we’ve seen this spring and late summer to be more the norm, than abnormal? If so, that means building stronger bridges; bigger and better culverts to handle the smaller rivulets that rage during flash floods; and perhaps channeling streams in select places to direct the flow of water along the path of least resistance.
As the governor said, this is an opportunity to rebuild in a way that makes Vermont even stronger and more prepared as we confront a changing future. And while this will be costly, taxpayers have to factor in the hundreds of millions lost to cancelled business, as well as the potential for more frequent road repairs were roads to be rebuilt as they were.
• And while Vermonters are resilient and tenacious in the face of hardship, were all towns as ready as they could have been to handle a crisis of this magnitude, or is there much we have learned from Irene’s fury that we could pass on to other communities and other generations? And should we not all look at the small streams or brooks uphill of our homes and take precautionary actions if we can?
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On the political front, calls from some members of the Legislature asking for a special session to convene in October so that all legislators can discuss the big-picture issues may be premature, as the governor rightly says, but they are not unfounded.
Questions of whether the state offices and facilities — which were flooded in the low-lying areas of Waterbury and may be uninhabitable for four months — should be renovated in the same location or moved to higher ground will need to be made before the session restarts in January. And it’s a decision that many believe should be discussed by the full legislative body.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, also noted that questions relating to land use beg a legislative response. “Some of the questions people are asking all over the state are ones that no one has answers for: Are we going to put the earth back where it was,” he asked of properties that are missing yards and sometimes homes. “And, if so, what’s the legal or regulatory framework we’re working in?”
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Without a doubt, Irene’s destruction poses new challenges for Vermont and will test the state’s political resolve to persevere in ways that will make our communities safer and more secure from the ravages of extreme weather.
But what is also beyond doubt is that Vermonters will rise to the occasion, as they have so many times before.
As Calvin Coolidge so famously said: “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
Angelo S. Lynn

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