Two Years Later, Irene Haunts Vermonters

fromVPR

When Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont two years ago, miles of roads were destroyed and 1,400 families were displaced. It didn't take long for the highways to be repaired, but putting people's lives back together has taken much longer. It's been a difficult lesson for a state unaccustomed to natural disasters.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, just as fires are a fact of life in the West, hurricanes smash into the Southeast every summer. But New England is something of a stranger to summer disasters, which is why it was huge news two years ago today when Irene hit Vermont. That tropical storm displaced 1,400 families.

Vermont Public Radio's Steve Zind has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE ZIND, BYLINE: It is an article of faith among Vermonters that the Irene recovery effort is something to be celebrated, as it was with a parade last weekend in the town of Newfane. In the days after the flood, there was no shortage of volunteers helping beleaguered neighbors. Entire towns came together to feed and house their own. Donations poured into relief funds. But two years later, some people are still recovering.

Peter Edlund was hired to oversee Irene home reconstruction projects. Edlund says he didn't believe it at first when someone from FEMA told him the recovery would take at least two years.

PETER EDLUND: I laughed at him and I said six months on the outside, there's no way this is going to take two years. And you know, I had no idea what disaster recovery was all about. But I understand that now. I see how people's lives are affected.

ZIND: Regardless of the help available, disasters take a financial toll on victims. Some people had virtually no resources and no idea what was available.

EDLUND: We're bumping up against poverty on some levels. We're bumping up against remoteness of Vermont.

ZIND: Edlund says others didn't think they needed help and tried to go it alone.

RAELENE LEMERY: I just come from that old school that you figure it out yourself. I tried. I really did.

ZIND: Raelene Lemery was visiting family when Irene hit. She lives in a little house tucked in the trees. She's well past retirement age, but her woodpile and the garden tools in the garage are signs of an active life. Irene washed away the long steep driveway to Lemery's house and it was months before she could return home to fully inspect the damage. Describing what she found, Lemery makes a softball-size circle with her hands.

LEMERY: I had mushrooms this big on my living room carpet.

ZIND: The mold that spread from her flooded basement was everywhere. Furniture, cabinets, clothing and appliances were ruined by the moisture. There was even mold in the light fixtures. So Lemery got down on her 72-year-old knees and started cutting up her ruined carpet. The mold made her sick.

Finally she asked for help. Volunteers cleaned her house and brought donated goods. But she discovered she also needed money to pay for repairs and replace belongings. Lemery had a hard time figuring out how to apply for recovery funds. When friends helped her apply for assistance, she found the money she received covered just part of her losses.

LEMERY: I just needed to get my head above water and I never have. I have used up all my savings. I can't borrow any more money. I'll never live long enough to pay it back.

(LAUGHTER)

LEMERY: And see, I even worry about that.

ZIND: The repairs to Lemery's house are still not complete, but it's habitable.

LEMERY: This is my bathroom and my vanity that was here had to be tore out.

ZIND: Lemery says at this point she has pretty much everything she needs for her house. But something is still missing.

LEMERY: The one thing that I really need: Time to heal, time to feel like a normal person again.

ZIND: More than 5,000 Vermonters who suffered Irene losses received financial assistance, but hundreds still see Irene reflected every day in the work left to be done and the debt they've taken on. Like Lemery, they all want to return to the normalcy that was life before Irene.

For NPR news I'm Steve Zind.

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