2 years later, Vermont still recovering from Irene

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NORTHFIELD, Vt. — A week ago, Bonnie Pemberton's new ranch house arrived in two pieces at a 1.5-acre lot on a hillside in Williamstown, Vt.
This week, plumbers and electricians are busy in the home, she said. Pemberton and her husband are anxious to move in — although that won't happen right away as they still have to buy new furniture and appliances and build the garage.
The family lost a lifetime of possessions when Tropical Storm Irene turned the Dog River into an angry torrent that drove them from their home on Aug. 28, 2011. Like so many Vermonters pummeled by that freak storm, Pemberton said, "There is a lot of loss. Everyone has a story."
The Pembertons' tale includes moving twice in the past 24 months. They stayed first for five weeks with her husband's father. Then a client of the family's mowing business offered to rent them his second home in Northfield, Vt.
"We are packed in there like sardines," Pemberton said, noting that her daughter and new baby have joined the couple while the daughter's husband is overseas.
In May, the Pembertons' home became the first in Northfield to be purchased under the federally funded buyout program — which allows willing sellers to relocate rather than stay in flood-prone locations where the cost of reconstructing a flood-resistant residence would be prohibitive.
Northfield officials have submitted 15 buyout applications — all but one from Pemberton's neighborhood. Most are still pending, leaving residents in limbo all these months after they were sucker-punched by the worst natural disaster to strike Vermont since the Flood of 1927.
"It is extremely slow. It is very frustrating," Pemberton said of the process.
In the beginning
The Dog River's raging waters ravaged the bungalows, duplexes and small businesses in the Water Street neighborhood.
The Pembertons had lived in one of those inundated riverside homes for 32 years. Many of the houses in their neighborhood were built by granite workers in the late 1800s, and the Pembertons' dated from the early 1900s.
The structures withstood a lot a rain storms over the decades, but Pemberton noted that Irene was the second storm of 2011 to produce flooding serious enough to damage her two-story house. In May of that year, high water from the river pushed in a corner wall in her basement. The family had made $6,000 in repairs when Irene struck.
Recalling the trauma
On that post-Irene Saturday two years ago, Pemberton, like her neighbors, welcomed volunteers to help with the aftermath of waters that would have been up to her neck if she had been standing in her living room when flooding reached its peak.
Bonfires in backyards burned debris — previously home furnishings and cherished possessions. Piles of fudge-like mud grew on the streets where volunteers dumped the buckets they were hauling from cellars. Members of the high school soccer team gave out the hot dogs they had intended to sell at the town's Labor Day celebration, which had been canceled.
It was a scene that played out throughout the fall of 2011 in hundreds of locations across Vermont as neighbors and strangers rallied to help storm victims. The need was great.
Six Vermonters had lost their lives in the storm, washouts cut off access to 13 communities and hundreds of miles of roads had disintegrated or disappeared, train tracks buckled and dozens of battered bridges had to be closed.
Irene was responsible for 49 deaths in its path: five in the Dominican Republic, three in Haiti and 41 in the United States. Six of the deaths in the U.S. were attributed to storm surge/waves or rip currents, 15 to wind, including falling trees, and 21 to rainfall-induced floods.
Even as Vermonters assessed the horrific damage, few would or could have predicted that recovery would still be occurring at the storm's second anniversary.
STORY: Vt. to reopen last highway destroyed by Irene
STORY: Waterbury, Vt., residents try to recover from flood
Gov. Peter Shumlin, touring the state Wednesday to mark the anniversary, stressed how far the state has come since the storm hit. Most roads and bridges are repaired, many folks now live in more flood-resistant housing and businesses are back in operation.
"We have a lot to celebrate today," he said.
Shumlin acknowledged, however, that dozens of families and businesses have yet to recover from Irene. "We have not forgotten you and will not stop fighting until the job is done."
Why it takes so long
Michele Braun, Northfield's zoning administrator, has coordinated the buyout program and acknowledges that it is time-consuming and complicated. She expects federal officials to approve 15 buyouts in Northfield, 14 in the Water Street neighborhood. So far, only five closings have occurred.
Each home considered for a buyout has to be appraised. It turned out that six in the Water Street neighborhood had been identified as historic in a 1980 survey, so they had to undergo more review. Braun had to hire an architectural historian to create a photo record for each.
Braun is hopeful the buyouts will be completed by the end of the year.
Before demolition, however, each structure has to be checked for asbestos, which would have to be removed by experts before the homes can be torn down, she said.
Put back together
The town of Northfield wasn't as hard hit as other communities in terms of road and bridge loss. A dozen towns each faced millions of dollars in damage. Bethel, Vt., for example, suffered $5.1 million in public infrastructure damage.
"For the town as it relates to damage, Irene has come to an end," Northfield Town Manager Rob Lewis said earlier this week. There's still one bridge project to complete, he noted, explaining it was delayed because the town tried unsuccessfully to convince FEMA to pay to realign the bridge rather than simply repair it.
Once the homes are demolished, there's talk of creating a park.
Lewis said the community would probably hold forums to solicit ideas for such a park.
As the trauma of Irene fades, Lewis wanted to remind Vermonters to remember those stuck in limbo.
"It is the residents for whom I feel bad," Lewis said, referring to the people still displaced and waiting for FEMA to decide the fate of their damaged homes.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY.
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