Dire warnings preceded Hurricane Irene and although some areas “dodged the bullet,” severe rains hammered parts of the East Coast, hitting areas unaccustomed to such storm activity. Though the hurricane didn’t hit New York City as hard as some predicted, Irene did not spare Vermont, New Jersey and upstate New York.
An already waterlogged Vermont collected more than 10 inches of rain during the storm, leading to five deaths (one person was still missing as of press time) and roads — 260 of them — and bridges were literally washed away. It was called the worst flooding in 80 years.
In upstate New York, up to 13 inches of rain threatened major dams and rendered hundreds of roads and bridges impassable, leaving three towns as virtual islands. The Mohawk River near Schenectady was near what officials called a 500-year flood.
New Jersey also had a rainy summer and couldn’t hold all the rain from Irene. Eleven people lost their lives. FEMA had granted assistance to 76,000 individuals to the tune of more than $130 million at press time.
Emergency Operations Center Lost
A snowy winter (up to 200 inches in some locations) produced floods in March and May in Vermont so the soil was still wet when Irene hit. The National Weather Service in Vermont had warned prior to the storm that the area was facing floods compared to the worst on record.
Andy Nash, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Vermont, wondered if residents had a hard time imagining a flood of this magnitude, according to a Washington Post report. “Do people really understand what Mother Nature is capable of?” he asked.
“They predicted a large amount of rain and folks were prepared,” said Mike O’Neil, Vermont’s director of emergency management. “We did suffer loss of life, but it certainly could have been much greater if folks weren’t really aware of what was coming.”
O’Neil said that as of mid-September, the damage was estimated at $37 million but that number was expected to rise. His emergency management staff was still in a FEMA joint field office after having lost the state’s main Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and its backup facility during the storm.
The EOC was nearing completion of a renovation when the storm hit. “There was one phase left that would have stopped us from losing the EOC, but the construction wasn’t finished. Timing is everything,” O’Neil said.
He said the temporary backup facility was flooded to the ceiling. As for the main EOC, the first floor was the one part of the building where reconstruction hadn’t been completed and that threatened the computer system. “The decision was made to shut down the computer system to save the data.”
The recovery effort in Vermont will be long. “We’re trying to make sure we get an accurate assessment of what the work ahead looks like,” O’Neil said. “Our No. 1 goal is to make sure everybody who needs housing gets housing before the cold weather sets in and get as much of the infrastructure back in place as possible.”
In New Jersey, Mary Goepfert, public information officer for the state’s Office of Emergency Management, said residents were mostly prepared. “During our evacuation planning we had done some behavioral studies where people indicated they would leave if asked — and they did,” she said.
But that amount of rain was unprecedented. Goepfert said in addition to a rainy August, the week prior to Irene, a heavy rain saturated the ground even more. “The areas that flooded had experienced flooding before but we also had some areas that either had not had flooding in a number of years or they had built systems to withstand flooding, and even those systems got overcome by the sheer volume of water.”
Although people evacuated when asked to, some weren’t equipped with essentials when entering shelters. “The one thing I would do is have people be more prepared for the conditions when they get to a shelter,” Goepfert said.
In the two weeks following the storm, Medical Reserve Corps and Community Emergency Response Team volunteers put in nearly 42,000 hours helping with recovery, but the challenge is large and will continue for some time, said Goepfert. “We’re still working on long-term recovery needs and that also is a situation that is new to us in some respects. We have to prepare people to be prepared for a long-term recovery situation.”