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Irene Response and Recovery Partnership addressed past problems and future needs

KILLINGTON-Approximately 60-80 people from Killington and Mendon attended the Irene Response and Recovery meeting at the Killington Elementary School, on Jan. 11.

Noelle Mackay commissioner of economic, housing and community development, who has led such community discussions across the state says:

"Our goal is to support communities as they make the hard decisions about recovery... Having cross-agency teams is critical as we help towns identify gaps in capacity and need, as well as trends worth pursuing."

MacKay began the Killington meeting by summarizing some of the issues express at other communities meetings, including: the need for communication protocols if there is no electricity, attending to people with special needs and the role of ski resorts in disaster planning. Mackay then asked area residents, town and state officials at the meeting what worked, what didn't work and what is needed in the future to aid response and recovery.

The discussion focused mostly on evaluating the response to the flood, the on-going efforts and the future needs. Mid- and long-term recovery plans were discussed in more general terms.

What worked?

COMMUNICATION:

The state response was overall, tremendous. Especially the Agency of Transportation (AOT) getting roads back in shape. Communication with the state police also worked well. The state set up a command center in Killington, which gave the residents a link to communications; when officials heard something was closed, they could verify it immediately with the state police and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC.)

Killington had an emergency plan in place and followed it. Killington quickly set up an operations center/incident command center.

VOLUNTEERS:

Volunteer effort was strong in Killington; coordinated with the media. Volunteers provided both housing and logistical aid. The volunteer coordinator was Steve Duschane.

There were many resources that could be used immediately to rebuild, including gravel for the roads. The towns also had good contractors readily available and a host of volunteers who got to work quickly repairing what they could.

Killington has about 3,000 structures. Town officials and volunteers took inventory of the structures quickly and methodically. Officials say the town now has a more accurate grand list than before Irene and FEMA was impressed with how accurate the information they collected was.

CRISIS SHELTER

The Killington Elementary School was used as a crisis shelter. There were on-site school staff that helped managed the shelter. The school has a generator.

Killington also developed a system for people to get medication and mail: The local pharmacy and post would deliver to the town and the town would distribute medications and mail out to the residents in need, with their permissions.

Killington also benefited from their strong business community. Despite the fact that all businesses took an economic hit, they came together to coordinate aid. Many took IOU's (no credit card machine were working) and provided food and/or shelter to workers and displaced residents. Once the immediate needs past, they also came together to spread the word that Killington was back in business.

FINANCIAL AID

The short-term financing aid offered by the state Treasurer's office was also extremely helpful. The Treasurer offered a plan to defer education payments for the next few months.

What didn't work?

COMMUNICATION:

Killington and Mendon communities voiced their concerns that communication between towns and between entities broke down at some points through the disaster recovery process. Some communities had trouble getting a consistent message from the other towns, the state and/or organizations intending to help. Isolation was a big issue in the Killington area. 600 tourists were trapped in the area.

Miscommunications with the Emergency Operations Center about water drops also became problematic. The towns did not know how much drinking water would come and when.

It was also difficult to get any direct communication from the military. They had to do a lot of face-to-face communication to avoid breaks-downs and misinformation with military personelle. Rutland's biggest gap in communication was with the military, officials said.

Folks also noted their dependence on the electronics, and said they need to remember that they may not be always work and they must have a plan to work around this obstacle. Mackay noted that Grafton used color-coded cards so that they could keep track of where their equipment was and who was using it. It was an example of a non-electronic system that worked really well.

TRANSPORTATION

Killington also discovered that it was on the border of two AOT areas, which caused some problems with transportation logistics.

Also, because gas stations were not open, gas became a rationed commodity and you needed to have cash to get any amount of gasoline. Some folks with generators for their house or ATVs could not use them once their gas ran out.

HESITATIONS/DELAYS

There was some hesitation on rebuilding efforts, as folks did not know if they would be reimbursed for projects already started.

Caring for pets and livestock also caused issues, as people were reluctant to leave their homes because they were worried that their animals needs wouldn't be met.

Additionally, the prevalence of second homes in Killington made it difficult to know if anyone was living there at the time of the Hurricane and whether he or she needed help.

Future needs

POSITIVE PUBLICITY

There was also concern raised about the amount of negative press Vermont received. There were suggestions for a positive publicity campaign.

QUICK FIXES

Many concerns were voiced about the quality of roads that were fixed quickly. Questions arose about how to finance lasting repairs that may be needed in the spring or soon thereafter as well as projects that have not yet been reimbursed.

OVER-WIDTH VEHICLES

Mendon officials expressed their continual need to use "over-width" vehicles for loads of materials still needed for repairs. They asked for flexibility from the DMV to allow those over-width vehicles to move over the road. Joe Flynn responded recommending officials reach out to the DMV directly. He said there are permissions that can be granted for such work.

REPLACING BRIDGES

Mendon is also concerned that they could be looking at four bridge replacements this spring. They have a master service agreement with an engineering firm to review the best solutions for the four bridges that need replacement.

DEBRIS PILE-UPS

Mendon officials were particularly concerned about the continued threat to the roads as debris has piled upstream. Officials say they need a plan for having it removed to prevent further damages. They had damage to 5 miles of the 7-mile road. They had a million dollar contract for one mile.

FEMA doesn't generally cover the clean-up of "woody" debris under the public assistance program. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) covers this so representatives from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) encouraged them to work with NRCS. In the past, it has always been up to the landowner and/or town to address such removal.

When the debris dislodges, it will head down to Rutland and could cause massive erosion and further flooding on its way. Mendon has registered with NRCS.

"This is a critical situation and nothing seems to be happening," one Mendon resident said. It is a delicate situation because it is not in Mendon's "right of way" and it is not our debris.

CULVETS

Looking at the culverts officials are starting to see that some should be up-graded from a culvert to a bridge. But, they may not have the financial means to upscale. They asked if there was government money to back up their desire to up-size some culverts. This is a challenge that has existed for years.

Putting bigger culverts in won't fix the problem, it just moves the problem down the line. The solution needs to be comprehensive.

"Is the state or the feds going to come in and re-vamp our whole system of culverts? If not, then these one-off single culvert solutions will not help the whole system overall. There needs to be a more holistic plan for sizing the culverts," said Jim Haff, from  the Killington Selectboard.

Some suggestions included putting levies' in, making ponds with dams or creating deep wells to put water back into the ground.

The problem stems from the developments of properties, which removed trees that used to soak up a good portion of the watershed and prevent flooding. Now there is nothing to stop the water, a watershed expert said, adding that Act. 110 was passed in 2010 to help address some of these issues. Two important results of that Act were the stream alternation/permit program and upstream development restrictions. He also noted that 96% of culverts in the U.S. are under-sized.

COMMEMORATING IRENE

Part of the future involves celebrating the survival and marking the significance of this event in some way. There is a group discussing how to do this. Create a public place that commemorates the event in some way.

Someone else suggested that we don't call it "disaster planning" but rather "business continuity planning" to encourage more engagement from the community in preparing for future emergencies. "The way to keep people involved is make it relevant to their businesses," said the resident.

Discussions will be on-going locally and statewide. Visit vermontstrong.vermont.gov for more information on Community Recovery Partnerships.

Tagged: Irene, Irene Response and Recovery meeting