‘A lot of good came out of it’ | Local News
WATERBURY – On Friday, August 26, 2011, children at Hunger Mountain Children’s Center on South Main Street helped their teachers revamp and decorate their classrooms to prepare for the transition from summer mode to preschool the following week.
When they left for the weekend, they had no idea that they would never come back to play, learn and take a nap in the comfortable two-story house that some had frequented since their childhood. In fact, these preschoolers would be in college in 2017 when the kids finally returned to South Main Street Daycare and Kindergarten, more than five years after Tropical Storm Irene recovered.
Waterbury was among the communities in central Vermont that were hit hard by Irene. The Winooski River flowed through the vast state office complex, neighboring neighborhoods and businesses up and down Main Street and the Highway 2 corridor stretching from Moretown to Bolton.
As the dirt roads, culverts and bridges in the nearby town of Duxbury were washed away, the houses in Waterbury town center had basements filled with river water and mud, many upper floors flooded to ‘to their kitchen worktops.
Those on the way to the water were evacuated and took refuge with friends and family on higher ground; others inside the nearby Thatcher Brook Elementary School were spared by the flood waters.
Many outside the village did not know until the next morning what destruction had really hit their neighbors.
The Winooski Street Bridge that connects Waterbury and Duxbury told the tale that took place overnight as entire trees, branches and an assortment of debris were lodged in the decking of the steel structure that sits two floors above the Winooski river on a normal day.
Daily routines came to a halt as apparently all able-bodied residents mobilized, following instructions from city officials, and deployed to the homes of people they had never even met to begin the cleaning job. .
“I was truly amazed at the amount of help we all received from people we didn’t just know in Waterbury, but across the state. It was truly heartwarming and made you feel like you weren’t alone, ”remembers longtime Waterbury resident Howard P.“ Skip ”Flanders. A resident of Elm Street, the Flanders home he shares with his wife Cathy, was damaged by Irene, as was the Wesleyan United Methodist Church on Main Street where he is an active leader of the congregation. In addition to these impacts, Flanders was one of three village administrators at the time of the storm, adding elected office in the aftermath of such a disaster.
“It shocked me in a way, but not. People you would see at certain board meetings discussing different sides of an issue – it didn’t matter which side you were on then. Everyone was just participating and helping each other, ”recalls MK Monley, whose day job at the time was an art teacher at Thatcher Brook Elementary School. One of her volunteer roles was as chair of the nonprofit economic development group Revitalizing Waterbury. RW, as it’s known, stepped in to form a short-term project called ReBuild Waterbury which raised over $ 1 million and hired a case manager, construction manager and volunteer coordinator. His job was to help homeowners get their homes back and bridge the financial gap between insurance and disaster relief payments.
Monley remembers how his place of work – the elementary school – was first a shelter, then the response center, then municipal offices until November 2011. After the Federal Emergency Management Administration responders had left Waterbury, city staff moved upstairs to the town center fire station which had only been built and opened weeks before Irene. City staff worked there until 2016, when the new city offices were completed.
Flanders remembers how the Saint-Léo room in the Catholic Church down the street became a gathering place in the days and weeks following the storm. “The community meals offered by the Red Cross in St. Leo’s have been very helpful for many reasons and a source of mental support,” he said.
Ten years later, memories resurface as the residents of Waterbury today examine their community not only intact, but with many significant improvements that have occurred in the decade since Irene.
The historic Henry Janes House, on the outskirts of town on North Main Street, overlooks the park and ball fields that were once the family farm of the Civil War surgeon and local benefactor. But today, the 19th-century Doctor’s House is a local museum to which is attached a new complex of municipal offices and a public library, the result of post-disaster construction.
The city’s old office building on Main Street was destroyed by flood waters. The $ 5 million reconstruction project produced a modern facility with a community meeting room and a brand new library, a project the community had on their to-do list for years but failed to tackle before Irene’s recovery.
City Manager Bill Shepeluk looks back now and says he appreciates the drive to rebuild better than what was in place before Irene. The library is a good example. “Maybe we could have upgraded (the library) eventually but the original building was not adequate,” he said.
The state took a similar approach, closing the state mental hospital to build a modern facility in Berlin. It demolished around 20 buildings in its Waterbury town center complex and built a $ 125 million 21st century office building after extensive earthworks along the Winooski in anticipation of future flooding. Changes to the state complex opened the door for new affordable housing through Downstreet Housing and the Hunger Mountain Children’s Center eventually returned after purchasing its old building which it leased to the state and the one next door, rebuilding them into a larger and modern daycare and preschool that the association now has.
Over 200 homes have been renovated with help from ReBuild Waterbury in Irene’s wake, many with features to prepare for possible future flooding. Some were raised several feet to sit higher on their lots; many had electrical panels and other key systems relocated to upper floors. Likewise, local authorities have taken steps to better prepare for future emergencies, such as adding generators to the primary school and new offices in the city, Shepeluk said.
“People ask me if I could go back in time, would I do it again,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go through Irene anymore. Physically and emotionally, it impacted me and many of us. But a lot of good has come out of it. “
Flanders accepted. “We have all gone through many stages to rebuild our homes and buildings, but we have made improvements that would not have happened otherwise. That’s true at home and at the Methodist church. These improvements will benefit properties and occupants in the future, but I hope we don’t have to start over, ”he said.
Monley echoed those sentiments and also reflected on how the experience built more than just brick and mortar improvements. “New friendships have been formed,” she said, noting how she and her husband, Don Schneider, who was the primary school principal at the time, welcomed a displaced family. That bond still remains strong, she said. “I think we’ve learned that we can rely on each other when the going is tough. “
Flanders said that an experience like Irene transforms more than the physical environment. It left an indelible mark, he said, that affects perspective and instills empathy. “Every time I see a flood on TV I know the long, difficult road these people have to travel once the water drops and the reporting fades,” Flanders said. “Then the real help is needed and the hard work begins. “
On a parallel track, during flood recovery and reconstruction at a myriad of construction sites around Waterbury town center, state and local governments have pursued several road and transport infrastructure projects. If it feels like there has been road construction for much of the last decade in Waterbury, that’s because it is.
Shepeluck checked the list: construction of the roundabout at the junction of routes 2 and 100; replacement of Interstate 89 bridges; reconstruction of routes 2 and 100 between Waterbury and Bolton in the west and Stowe in the north; the recent reconstruction of Main Street which included the replacement of the water and sewer systems.
“It’s an incredible amount of work that has happened in a decade,” he said.
Three years of work on the Main Street project have just ended, and a ribbon cutting Friday was to mark this milestone with Irene’s birthday. Part of this commemoration will revisit a 2012 project carried out just one year after the storm.
As an artist and art educator, Monley typically turns to art in everything she does. Recovery from the floods was no different. “The Floodgates Art Project was one of the most powerful exhibitions I have ever been to,” she said. From a simple idea of distributing 6 inch by 6 inch plastic tiles to community members was born this display of hundreds of personal and detailed works of art using every medium imaginable as people of all ages shared their thoughts and reactions to the disaster.
“This art project allowed people to process their experiences,” said Monley. “I myself must have done a dozen different articles all expressing different aspects of what I had dealt with – from teaching full time to starting ReBuild Waterbury and attending nightly meetings at least four. per week at the start; then have a family that lives with us for seven months. It was a lot.
The pieces were displayed in the Elm Street space now occupied by the Craft Beer Cellar store in 2012 to mark Irene’s first birthday. Recently, dozens of pieces were unpacked from Monley’s barn and set up in Axel’s Frame Shop and Gallery on Stowe Street, where they will be on display until September 25.
It is also where a two-story metal-mounted mural on the building’s exterior wall, “Phoenix Rising”, has taken up residence. The image created by artist Jessi Zawicki has been inspired by the resilience and transformation of the community over the past decade.
Schneider, now a retired elementary school principal, said the resilience and transformation is real.
“Our city now has a quiet confidence that we can lick anything,” he said.