Thursday, August 23, 2012

After Irene, Vermont Victory Not Yet Assured

Vermont is taking a victory lap. Perhaps it ought to wait.

Not that officials are using the term "victory lap" to describe Governor Peter Shumlin's four-day "Irene Anniversary" tour of 22 towns and villages ravaged by the floods of Tropical Storm Irene a year ago. Shumlin himself recently acknowledged that "there's still a lot of damage, a lot of work to do."

But the tour's grand finale is an event at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph. Governors do not schedule such an event without intending it to be a celebration, especially not ten weeks before they're up for re-election.


It isn't that Vermont has nothing to celebrate, or that Shumlin is not justified in calling attention to his administration's energetic and capable response to Tropical Storm Irene and its floods. By any reasonable measurement, the state government did a superb job last year.

And it still is. The Irene Recovery Office has coordinated an extraordinarily intertwined network of federal, state, local, charitable, farm, and business organizations to try to get as much help to as many people as possible.

Even Paul Bruhn, the Director of Preservation Trust of Vermont, who thinks the state is "in pretty tough shape," because of Irene, has nothing but praise for the state, local, and federal governments as well as hundreds of individuals who "did what needed to be done" in the immediate aftermath of the storm.


But it still seems premature for a victory lap. Victory, as usually defined, is by no means assured.

Especially because officials expect more serious flooding in the near future. Not necessarily another Irene. But a warmer world is a wetter world, and Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said, "we're getting rainstorms of greater intensity. We have to make sure we rebuild the system in a way that's going to survive another big storm."

That way is more expensive, another reason "victory" over the flood ravages is not assured. Full recovery will cost.well, nobody knows exactly how much. But more than is on hand; more, it seems, than is in sight.

Even Sue Minter, whose official position (the Irene Recovery Officer) and seemingly irrepressible optimism incline her to look on the bright side, acknowledged that "it will be years of long-term struggle" before the state fully recovers from what she called "a cataclysmic event."


So far, the recovery bill is $733 million. That includes, Minter reported, $486.2 million for road, bridge, rail and other infrastructure repair and $118.6 million of "hazard mitigation" to prepare for those future storms that worry Brian Searles. The Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) are expected to cover most of those expenses.

How much is under review and debate between state and local officials and the feds. But that debate could be the least of Vermont's worries. One way or another, it will be resolved, probably with the state getting most of what it expected - some from FEMA and the Highway Administration, but also from other federal agencies. Vermont's Congressional delegation - two Democrats and de facto Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders - have clout with a Democratic Administration and are adept at Washington insider politics.

Already, the state and its localities have sold municipal bonds (meaning borrowed) for $492 million this year, almost $400 million more than last year. Much of that will be covered by private insurance and the Federal Government, and right now Vermont has plenty of borrowing capacity, so the debt is not likely to be a burden. But it does illustrate the high cost of the recovery.

There is, to be sure, a bright side. In its 27-page June report to Governor Peter Shumlin, Minter's Recovery Office listed some: $22.7 million in grants to families and individuals (the maximum $30,200 grant to 220 households); $17.6 million in Small Business Administration disaster loans; $875,000 in private money raised by the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund. And more, all publically available through the state government's web site.

But as Paul Bruhn noted, "the average grant to homeowners has been less than $6,000" and not the $30,200 maximum. Scores of small businesses, Bruhn said, even those that have gotten help from government and from private funds "have taken on significant new debt (which) has to be paid back."

As almost all officials and experts acknowledge, all levels of government combined are not going to come up with enough money to replace all the structures, rebuild and re-furnish all the homes, make whole all the business losses, and restore all the farmland washed away by Irene. Private donations are needed, too.

And they've been coming, statewide by the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund and the Vermont Community Foundation, regionally by groups such as Friends of the Valley (Wilmington). From inside and outside the state's borders, people have been generous enough to allow the Disaster Relief Fund to have allocated $875,000 to displaced homeowners as of June.

But fund-raising experts worry that the public's generosity will ebb over time.

"Success in disaster fund-raising tends to diminish the farther away you get from the event," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the Vermont Community Foundation. "So raising money long-term is an ongoing challenge."

Longer-term and harder than many thought it would be. It isn't that Vermont was ever in denial about the extent of the storm damage. But for a while there was a certain amount of rah-rah self-congratulation, a kind of  `aren't-we-great' tone that pervaded both official statements and the news coverage, persuading some Vermonters that everything was going to be fine, that Vermont would emerge from its ordeal unscathed.

In some ways, the state was not as scathed as it thought. Officials don't want to say this too bluntly - they want to perpetuate the sense of urgency so individuals keep donating to the private recovery efforts - but much of the state and most of its economy were spared the ravages of the storm.

That could explain why Vermont's economy is purring along, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and steady if unspectacular job and income growth.

"The major areas Irene hit are relatively small in terms of overall economic impact," said University of Vermont economist Art Woolf, who noted that Chittenden County, the Connecticut River Valley and the Route 7 corridor largely escaped Irene's wrath. "It takes a lot to really have a dramatic impact on a state's economy," he said.

In some ways, a state's economy can actually benefit from a natural disaster. According to Tom Kavet, the Legislature's consulting economist, "perversely, natural disasters often have beneficial impacts" on a state's economic statistics.  Destruction of bridges and highways reduces the state's aggregate wealth, he said. "But then the need to rebuild, to the extent that the money comes from outside, from the Federal Government or from insurance.the state ends up with positive economic metrics" on employment and economic growth.

But try telling residents of Wilmington or Waterbury that Irene had minimal economic consequences.

"In certain localities, especially small ones, you get a more significant impact," Art Woolf said, and in parts of the state, the bad news is that the results of Irene's destructive force will last for decades.

Much of central and southern Vermont will never look the same. Many homes in the flooded areas won't be rebuilt, either because their owners cannot afford to rebuild them or because their towns have decided not to allow construction in flood plains. Some businesses will never reopen. Many of those who do will be saddled with greater debt, rendering their survival questionable. Some farms are literally gone, their corn-fields washed away. Others might go, their fields covered with muck, their bank accounts swollen with debt.

That's the bad news. Hidden behind those same facts, though, is some good news. For instance, along Route 73 in Rochester, three bridges damaged by Irene will be replaced, but not precisely replicated.

"All of them will be longer than they were, and slightly higher" said Jennifer Fitch, the project manager of the Transportation Agency's structure section. As a result, she said, the reconstruction will be "a little more expensive" than simply recreating the old bridges exactly as they were.

Those bridges are not the only ones. Throughout the storm ravaged areas, bridges will be longer and higher. Culverts will be wider. In other words, they will be better (if perhaps not, to everyone's eyes, as aesthetically pleasing).

Irene didn't make state transportation officials design better bridges and culverts. Because they've been expecting more storms and flooding, they've been doing it for about five years, Fitch said, "designing more for stream morphology, (to) continue the stream through the structure as though no structure was there."

In some ways, then, Irene presented Vermont's transportation and natural resource planners with an opportunity to do more of what they were doing anyway and do it faster.

Meaning, of course, more expensively. Yet another reason "victory" in this struggle is going to take a while.

Post written by Vermont Newsguy Jon Margolis.

Margolis is the author of three books and was the national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He is also an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

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