The Deerfield Valley News: Towns, people pulled together after Irene

The Deerfield Valley News published an article looking back on the state’s response to Tropical Storm Irene. Treasurer Pearce is credited below as being an advocate for the affected towns in their recovery efforts by working to defer education taxes due to the State, while at the same time advance over $155 million in payments to cash-strapped communities.

Towns, people pulled together after Irene
by Mike Eldred

9/3/2016

Halifax Irene
Colored paper plates marked passable routes through Halifax after flooding devastated many roads.

HALIFAX- After Irene’s floodwaters receded on August 28, 2011, Halifax residents found themselves virtually isolated from their neighbors.

Unlike many valley towns, no houses in Halifax were destroyed by the flood. During the storm, emergency officials opened a shelter and briefly hosted two residents. In the morning they went home to find their house intact.

But the town’s public infrastructure had been hit hard. “Almost every road had some damage,” recalls Christina Moore, who became the town’s recovery officer in the storm’s aftermath. “We lost four bridges. We lost more than a mile of Green River Road.”

“Things didn’t look good,” says Lewis Sumner, the town’s emergency management director at the time. “Green River Road had a river running down where the road was supposed to be. A half mile stretch of Stowe Mountain Road was washed out 25 to 30 feet deep.”

One of the only roads in and out of town that remained open was Route 112, and even that was reduced to one precarious lane. Moore says getting in and out of town was “miserable,” and Sumner says even getting to residents in Halifax was difficult. “We had a lot of people who couldn’t get out. We sent people up with four-wheelers to take the food and supplies for a few days. Some people didn’t have phone or electricity – when Green River Road washed out, it took utility poles, trees, everything.”

Moore says the town was lucky to be well prepared to handle the situation thanks to their participation in emergency planning drills for Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon. “Everyone involved with emergency services went to the fire department assuming there would be an emergency operations center,” Moore says. “That put the selectboard, emergency medical services, the fire department, and the highway department in the same room where they had trained every month for Vermont Yankee drills. So there was a sense of coordination from the beginning.”

As roads were repaired and opened in the days immediately following the flood, Halifax residents developed a network of routes over back roads to get people in and out of town. “Technically, we were never cut off, but it was a routing process no one would ever think of. It took a while to understand the route.”

The convoluted routes were a hot topic of conversation among residents, at least until someone thought to mark the routes. “We had all these teeny one-lane roads that you could get through on, but you had to be FedEx or EMS or the fire department to know the way. Someone came up with the idea of putting colored paper plates on trees to mark the routes – blue for Brattleboro, green for Greenfield, and white for Whitingham and Wilmington.”

Sumner says volunteers put the plates up in one day. News of the routes spread so fast that, by the next day, people from Wilmington were driving through Halifax to get to Brattleboro.

But even though most Halifax residents were able to navigate to work and to get groceries and supplies, the town was still facing $4.6 million in infrastructure repairs. “That’s more than five times the town’s annual budget of $800,000 (at the time),” Moore noted.

But Moore says there were a number of things working in Halifax’s favor. “The first thing was that the storm hit when taxes were due. Patty Dow, the town clerk and treasurer, was able to use the tax payments to pay bills.”

Moore and Sumner both say the state also stepped up. “State treasurer Beth Pearce really deserves a shout out,” Moore says. “She permitted towns to pay their taxes late. Technically, we used some state money to pay our emergency bills, but the state understood. As FEMA reimbursements came in, we paid the state.”

Moore says Pearce and the state also established a “hold harmless” rule limiting towns’ liability for recovery expenses to 3 cents on their tax rate. Under most emergency declarations, the federal government reimburses towns for 75% of qualified expenses, and the state of Vermont will pay an additional 10% to 15%, leaving towns to cover the remaing 5% or 10%. “But 5% or 10% of $4.5 million is still a bill we couldn’t cover,” Moore says. “What the state did meant we didn’t have to think about a bond or increasing taxes.”

Sumner says state highway officials were also very helpful when the town was having difficulty convincing a bank to give them a $2.5 million line of credit without an approved project in hand. “Finally we called Gary Shelley at VTrans. I asked if there was something the state could do. He looked things over and said ‘It looks like you’ve got a big project (Green River Road). We can write that up for $2.5 million and you can take that to the bank.’ He emailed it to the town office, and the town office emailed it to the bank, and the bank called right up and said the paperwork would be there in the morning. And it was.”

Sumner says the recovery in Halifax went well, and he credits Moore and other town officials. Halifax recently received their final reimbursement and closed the books on their recovery. “We were one of the towns with the most damage, and we got paid the quickest, with Christina doing the paperwork and keeping good records. FEMA likes pictures, and we took hundreds of pictures. When we had a picture of damage, they didn’t question it, they could see it.”