Towns learn lessons from Tropical Storm Irene disaster

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s been one year since Tropical Storm Irene wiped out roads, bridges and buildings throughout Vermont, taxing emergency management systems statewide.
That storm, and the weeks immediately after spent on emergency repairs, helped to get area town officials thinking more about the realities of disaster management, according to Tim Bouton, emergency response planner at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC).
“People are more conscious that there could be a large-scale disaster here,” Bouton said.
One such town official is Jill Jesso-White, Hancock’s emergency management coordinator since Irene’s aftermath. For Jesso-White, the past year has involved a lot of preparation that before Irene nobody expected would be necessary.
Jesso-White, who works as director of community and provider relations at Rutland Regional Medical Center, has attended an emergency management-training course offered by the state. Now she is working on updating the town’s basic emergency operation plan, which highlights vulnerable areas and homes in the town, as well as key contact information.
Her next task is to update the town’s incident command structure, assigning individuals to specific roles.
“That’s about the process, not about people,” she said. “It tries to put the right resources to the right tasks, so that the fire chief is not the one who’s staying behind to answer calls.”
Jesso-White also bought five radios for the town — one each for three selectboard members, one for the town office, and one for her.
And she’s applied for a new American Red Cross program that aims to create emergency shelters in isolated communities, not only in population centers. If chosen, Hancock would designate a dozen people trained to operate a shelter and carry out an annual disaster drill to foster preparedness.
Even without a designated shelter, however, Jesso-White said her next major project will be finding grants and donations to buy two generators, one for the town hall and one for the schoolhouse.
While the town in September successfully created an emergency meal and supply distribution center at the firehouse, which has a generator, she worries what would happen if a disaster happened in the middle of the winter. In that case, fire trucks would need to stay indoors, and the firehouse could not serve as a shelter.
“People are definitely more prepared, but Hancock is still very, very vulnerable without generators,” she said.
On a personal level, Jesso-White said she’s more prepared as well.
“Now we keep no less than three cases of water in the closet,” she said. “We still don’t like rainstorms.”
After a disaster, towns may also apply for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. FEMA disburses an additional 15 percent of the funding it granted within the state to fund projects that will minimize future damage.
Shelley Twitchell of the Hancock selectboard said the town hasn’t yet looked at that program as a potential funding source — she expects construction on Churchville Road, the last major post-Irene project, to finish up within the next couple of weeks.
Post-Irene projects so far have cost Hancock $1.63 million, according to Town Clerk Sara Deering, with a FEMA reimbursement of $1.467 million.
“Right now we’re concentrating so much on getting the roads back in order, but there might be some things later on that we apply for,” said Twitchell.
Granville Town Clerk Kathy Werner said her town is waiting on funding to repair Buffalo Farm Road, which is still closed. In total, she said the town has been approved for $560,016 for the project, though it’s only received $443,562 at this point. The town will be expected to pay $82,777.
But Granville selectboard chairwoman Cheryl Sargeant said the town has also been moving forward on a mitigation grant that will allow it to buy three flood-prone properties on Route 100.
Granville and Hancock belong to the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, but Bouton said mitigation has become a buzzword within towns in the regional planning commission coverage area as well, where most of the low-lying towns saw minimal storm damage.
Since Irene, the ACRPC and FEMA have worked with five county towns to adopt mitigation plans, which identify potential risks and lay out plans to address them.
One such town is Whiting. Selectboard chair Ellen Kurrelmeyer said the town did apply for disaster funding from FEMA for minor road repairs, pledging, like other towns did, to donate a matching amount to the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.
While no money has come in from FEMA so far, the town’s application warranted a visit from FEMA representatives, who recommended that the town adopt a mitigation plan. Doing so allowed the town to join the National Flood Insurance Program, which will allow town residents to buy flood insurance.
“We decided that the town shouldn’t stand in the way of people who want to buy into that,” said Kurrelmeyer.
The mitigation plan sets highway standards and pledges to install culverts of a certain size so as not to block the flow through town waterways.
Kurrelmeyer also noted that some of the biggest issues brought on by Irene were not within the town proper — roads into the town from the south and east were obstructed for days after Irene.
Alison Joseph, Ripton selectboard clerk, said one of the major lessons she learned from Irene regards paperwork. The town of Ripton has received about $113,371 from FEMA so far, of which about $6,500 will go to fix private roads in the town.
She said it’s key, especially after a major weather event, to document all damage in full, complete with photographs.
“I learned you need to document immediately and have measurements,” said Joseph. “Always bring a ruler.”
While the paperwork can be onerous — reports must be submitted to the state and FEMA in precise templates that tend to differ from the way towns keep records. Joseph said properly dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s are crucial steps in the application process.
“It ends up being worth it for the town,” she said.
But the mitigation grant process turned out to be the most difficult — the cost-benefit analysis that FEMA conducts while reviewing applications relies on meticulous documentation of how much a certain piece of road or culvert has cost the town over the course of years.
And Ripton residents know the value of mitigation projects — Bouton said extensive road and culvert work in recent years is likely what kept Ripton’s damage relatively minor compared to the 2008 storms, which closed Route 125 for weeks.
Bouton said most towns don’t keep precise records of every load of gravel that has gone to a certain spot, something that has prevented towns from providing the documentation they needed to receive mitigation grants.
Joseph agreed — although she said Ripton town officers keep records, they don’t always meet the required standards.
“It’s easy to say, ‘We’ve spent X number of dollars on a road,’” said Joseph. “It’s hard to say where exactly on the road it was.”
From here on out, Joseph said she plans to create spreadsheets to document work done in town that more closely mirror the documentation FEMA and the state require in case of an emergency. She’s also hoping to incorporate GPS coordinates into the documentation process.
“This has really emphasized the need for having codes and standards and keeping those up,” she said.
Bouton said many towns had pulled their documentation together by the time this spring’s major rain storm on May 29 was designated a disaster in the county. Towns were ready with proper documentation of damage, however minor, by the time FEMA officials made their rounds, and they were able to get more support for necessary repairs because of it.
“How that worked is directly attributable to Irene,” said Bouton.
But, said Bouton, there’s more that can be done to improve emergency systems and to prevent further disaster, and he worries that those critical evaluations of systems have slowed a year after Irene. While many town and state agencies have worked to adapt since the storm, he worries that in any time of crisis, the impulse is strong to return to “normal.” If towns stop at normal, he said, the next flood could pose as much of a danger as Irene did.
“Recovery should not be normalcy,” he said. “It should be, ‘How do we make things better?’”

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