The legacy of Irene is fast becoming lore. The lore is one of heroism, of swift-water rescues and resupply convoys, but it is also one of self-reliance and resilience. The lore that we will pass on to future Vermonters is one of a state that survived the first shock of disaster and kept going.
The response and the recovery were not without missteps and speed bumps — like the evacuation of the state’s emergency command center at the height of the flood, due to flooding. But there is a reason that so many people have referred to the excerpt from a 1928 speech by Calvin Coolidge that concludes: “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
Coolidge’s sentiment rang true in 2011 and the years since because when the time came for us to prove ourselves, we didn’t shrink from the task. We responded, person by person, town by town, and as a state. That fact is now part of Vermont lore, along with the many stories surrounding the event itself.
There was the second constable of a small, isolated town who patrolled the streets wearing a cowboy hat and packing a sidearm. The woman who clung to the roof of her car for four hours, after it was washed up against a tree in the middle of the flood. The utility workers who clambered on foot through the mountains to plan the restoration of power, or rode in via back roads and trails to isolated towns. The man who drove his backhoe into the flood to rescue the neighbors from their mobile home park, until the backhoe was submerged and died.
The restaurants and inns that opened their doors and their kitchens to neighbors and strangers alike, and the National Guardsmen and women who were called up for a deployment close to home. There was a New York stockbroker, who, stranded while attending a wedding, ordered up a helicopter to “rescue” him and his family from the suddenly isolated mountain town. He missed out on seeing the real beauty of Vermont — the people.
Songs, books, YouTube videos and Twitter accounts sprang up in the wake of the flood, but the damage remained — and the story of the long recovery, while not as charming, should carry equal weight. The lore became not just about the first responders, but the second and third responders, and the people who kept responding, day after day, month after month, and now, year after year.
In many parts of the state, the recovery goes on, and is far from over. Riverbanks still bear the wounds of high water and the scars of riprap; there are still skeletons of homes sitting among silt and tangled debris, rotting. There are people who have managed to keep their heads above water but are still in danger of being overwhelmed by the devastation that Irene wrought.
The recovery goes on.
We learned that the might of the federal government is nearly useless in the face of what a small, cohesive town can accomplish; we learned that without the support of the federal government, those same small towns would be crushed financially by the costs of recovery and repair. We learned that we can accomplish far more than we typically think is possible, and that when the typical barriers between public and private are blurred, we can get things done faster — although not necessarily the best way.
It’s possible, in many parts of the state, to think the long slog is behind us. The federal buyouts of ruined properties — which had to remain untouched, falling apart, through the two-year buyout process, due to regulations — stood as a stark reminder that the might of the United States can be slowed to a crawl by its own Byzantine bureaucracy, while the volunteer-led local efforts had roads rebuilt and rescue routes in place within a matter of hours or days of the flood. The state did learn how to overcome both natural disasters and the inertia of a bulky bureaucracy — both in road building and how we array our forces in response to floods or other events. The case officers who have been the quarterbacks of the recovery will stay in place — not dispersed, but ready.
Years from now, it will be the start of many a story — “Where were you during Irene?” In Waterbury, Moretown, Bethel, Pittsfield, Wilmington and many other locations, the answer might well begin: “I had the good fortune to be among Vermonters.”
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