Story and photo by Jody Ciano
Two hundred and sixty roads close, 33 state highway bridges close, 13 communities are cut off from the state highway system, culverts fail or are compromised, debris is strewn everywhere, the Emergency Operation Center is flooded and has to be abandoned, and that’s just the beginning. Sounds like the setting of an apocalyptic novel with the first line, “We knew the storm was coming and we knew it was going to be trouble.” But those were the word of Brian Searles, Secretary of Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), in his presentation “Tropical Storm Irene and Vermont’s Transportation System: A look back and a look forward” on November 16, 2011 in the Waterman Building.
In a state that has more unpaved roads than state roads, where local politics and weather are the topic over coffee at the quick stop, Tropical Storm Irene is not old news. Travelling up the east coast as a major hurricane, then downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Vermont on August 28th, 2011, officials knew it wasn’t going to be wind that could devastate the state, it was going to be rain. Vermont was in trouble before Irene hit. The state already had seen record snow precipitation in February and record rains in April and May. With waterways adjacent to roadway washing out, debris becoming a huge part of the problem, bridges collapsing and towns completely severed from the state highway system, Searles quickly recognized that the routine organizational structure at VTrans was not going to work. VTrans implemented their emergency management plan which included three Incident Command Centers.
The results were remarkable. Planning logistics needed a strong liaison. Seven hundred people at VTrans jumped on board with an established goal of getting to the cut off communities for emergency and utility vehicles access. The media was given complete access to as much information as possible. Two hundred contractors and consultants primarily from Vermont responded without a lot of discussion about contracts, hundreds of national guard troops responded from VT, ME, IL, OH, NH, SC, WV and VA, medical assistance came from LA, ME, AR, MO, NH, ID and FL, and the Vermonter who had better fortune than their neighbor in the biggest natural disaster the state has ever seen did more than just lend a hand. “I was delighted the way people responded,” Searles said.
Much of the infrastructure has been repaired but closures still remain today. “Irene will be around for us for years.” Searles remarked. Bridges of concern need to be inspected, roads need to be prepared for winter travel and the environmental impact of sediment that dragged from the Connecticut River into Long Island Sound has future implications. Current estimates for repairs from the storm are at $250 million.
You can view Brian Searles presentation at the University of Vermont on Channel 17/ Town Meeting Television, on Comcast Cable and Burlington Telecom at the following times:
1 Monday November 21, 6:00 PM
2 Thursday November 24, 2:35 PM
3 Thursday November 24, 11:15 PM
4 Friday November 25, 4:15 AM
5 Friday November 25, 10:15 AM