Emergency responders still working hard

ADDISON COUNTY — On Aug. 28, while many watched Tropical Storm Irene rushing in on TV, radio or computer, local officials were battling the storm to keep roads open and information streaming.
But as news of the disaster falls from national and local headlines, many of those local officials are still working hard, attending to recovery efforts and evaluating the emergency response procedures carried out in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
At the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC), the journey is far from over. The organization served as a liaison to state officials throughout the emergency response period, collecting information on road closures and storm damage from individual towns.
“While local towns are doing their work, helping themselves deal with the disaster, we’re collecting that (data) and feeding it to the state,” said ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee.
ACRPC has also been working with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find places to host mobile disaster units like the ones stationed at the Middlebury VFW last week and Hancock this week.
And though the organization doesn’t typically serve those towns over the mountain, transportation planner Rick Keene stepped in to get FEMA workers to Granville, Hancock and Rochester in the storm’s immediate aftermath.
The organization’s past work on town emergency plans with officials from Vermont Emergency Management helped it to slip into a county-wide administrative role in disaster response — a somewhat unusual role for a regional planning commission.
“We’ve been the conduit for collecting or disseminating information to towns in the region for some time,” said Lougee. “Because of the scope of this disaster, they’ve relied on us a lot more in the operations phase.”
Lougee said ACRPC will also collect action reports from all people involved in emergency response during and after the storm, and help to analyze what worked and what could be revised.
It wasn’t just the formal organizations that sprang to action immediately after Irene. A loosely organized group of road commissioners and foremen from across Addison County regularly helps out when one town has a large construction project or must address a disaster. And the group did the same in this instance.
Stu Johnson, the Cornwall road commissioner, coordinated the efforts, keeping track of the people and trucks heading over the mountain to pitch in on the roads. Starting on Sept. 7, once access roads were restored to better conditions, teams from 11 towns headed over to Granville, Rochester and Hancock to help with the recovery. In total, Johnson said the work totaled about 52 truck-days.
“There’s no formal mutual aid agreement,” said Johnson, “But we work together. Sooner or later it all comes out in the wash.”
Tom Estey, Starksboro road foreman, said damage to the roads in Starksboro wasn’t too bad, in comparison to that from last spring’s flooding. Damage to roads in Starksboro only totaled about $15,000 or $20,000 — just a fraction of the damage the town sustained in April.
After he’d squared away his town roads, Estey said he took a week off of work to pitch in over the mountain, spending three days fixing roads in Hancock and Rochester.
“It went really well. We got a lot done and got a lot of roads opened up,” he said.
And, Estey said, being able to help towns that were so hard-hit by the storm was a reward in its own right.
“People there were just so grateful,” he said “That made it all worth it for me.”
Jill Jesso-White, Hancock’s emergency management coordinator, said her work is far from over. In fact, it’s just begun — she was appointed emergency management coordinator on Sept. 6, after Jim Leno, also the town’s road foreman, stepped down from the emergency management position.
“He was dealing with so much road damage that it really took all of his time,” said Jesso-White. “I thought about it, and decided I do have some experience that I can add to this.”
Jesso-White works as director of community and provider relations at Rutland Regional Medical Center, and she said she does emergency drills at work.
Her own property along Route 125 was flooded after a culvert plugged up — they’ve taken 25 dump truck loads of boulders and silt off the property and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
But Jesso-White said it was clear she needed to reach out to the town. On the Tuesday after the storm, she decided that the town needed to hold an informational meeting, so she and her husband walked and drove all across town to get the word out.
“We got more than 60 people, which is more than we usually have turn out for town meeting,” said Jesso-White.
On the momentum from the successful meetings and town-wide dinners that the town held, Jesso-White said Hancock planned to continue bi-monthly get-togethers — possibly in the form of a community coffeehouse — in the future.
And the food shelf in town, which used to be open once a month, plans to open more regularly to address personal needs of those in town, especially during the recovery process.
“Prior to the flood that worked, but now it’s clear that it doesn’t,” said Jesso-White.
This aspect of community support, said Jesso-White, is a key aspect of managing the aftermath of the emergency. She’ll be collecting email addresses for a town-wide contact list, and she’s sending a Vermont Emergency Management booklet on personal emergency preparedness to each house in town.
Beyond communication, though, Jesso-White said her next step will be to create an emergency response plan for the town, clarifying roles and responsibilities in case of another emergency.
“Things really went well, considering,” she said. “But we don’t have Black Hawk helicopters landing in Hancock on a regular basis. Whose role is it to make sure the parking lot’s clear?”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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