RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It was five months ago that a town in Vermont was walloped by the remnants of Hurricane Irene. Waterbury sustained millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue for businesses there. The floods brought by Irene receded long ago, but Waterbury's' future is still uncertain. Vermont Public Radio's Lynne McCrea reports.
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LYNNE MCCREA, BYLINE: Out on Main Street, a church bell still chimes daily, but daily life in Waterbury hasn't been the same since Tropical Storm Irene.
BILL SHEPELUK: It's palpable. You can sense that it's not as vibrant as it was.
MCCREA: Bill Shepeluk is Waterbury's Municipal Manager. He says about 200 properties in the village were hit by flooding, nearly a third of all its homes and businesses. But for residents, that's not the worst of it. For decades, 1,500 employees worked at the sprawling state office complex along one end of Main Street.
But Irene's floodwaters inundated all 49 of the century-old red brick buildings. All but one of them was rendered uninhabitable. That meant almost all those workers had to go to temporary offices elsewhere. They still haven't returned. Bill Shepeluk says the town felt the loss immediately. Fifteen hundred people who were once in and out of restaurants, grocery stores and dry cleaners are now gone.
SHEPELUK: You know, every job has a multiplier, so every dollar of payroll maybe translates into seven or eight or $12, and that dollar just gets circulated through a community.
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MCCREA: More than half of Albert Caron's customers were state workers. His auto repair shop is just a block from the state office complex, and work has dropped off dramatically.
ALBERT CARON: I have nothing scheduled for next week, week after. Near lunchtime, usually, I can probably figure out anywhere between eight and 10 walk-ins. Now I get one if I'm lucky.
MCCREA: The irony of Waterbury's situation is that the town was in tough straights 30 years ago, when the state mental hospital occupied the buildings that have since been converted to the state office complex. It was that transformation from state hospital to state offices that triggered the town's renaissance.
MARK HALL: Hey, how you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How's it going?
HALL: Pretty good. How are you guys doing...
MCCREA: At Waterbury's winter farmers market, Mark Hall says residents in this close-knit community have been trying to support village businesses.
HALL: The community's great. I mean, we do everything we can, but there's not enough of us to keep it going the way it was going before the flood.
MCCREA: The state has been studying whether it's financially feasible to renovate some of the aging buildings at the Waterbury complex so workers can return. The question now is: How long can the village wait? While many businesses struggle to hang on, people in town are fighting back. They've created ReBuild Waterbury, a nonprofit to help push along the recovery process.
AMY HOSKINS: People are really, I think, committed to the community.
MCCREA: Amy Hoskins volunteers at the farmers market. She says before Irene, the town was just hitting its stride, with the addition of things like a wine bar and a performing arts studio.
HOSKINS: So it definitely - it had become sort of a more thriving, lively place in the last few years. And to have Irene hit us when it did has really set us back.
MCCREA: Like many others in town, Hoskins is hopeful that Waterbury's resilience will carry it through this new challenge. Municipal Manager Bill Shepeluk sees it as a challenge the town will rise to.
SHEPELUK: You know, the old adage is you have to adapt or you die. And we're in a position where we have to accept there's going to be change.
MCCREA: Meanwhile, the town looks ahead to March. That's when state government expects to make decisions about whether any state workers can return to Waterbury and when.
For NPR news, I'm Lynne McCrea.
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