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After Irene, Vermont Tries To Save Historic Buildings

Vermont Irene Damage Recovery History Flooding

MICHAEL HILL   10/ 5/11 04:27 PM ET   AP

WATERBURY, Vt. -- The floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene that ripped up roads and washed into living rooms across Vermont took a dramatic toll on quaint old villages – filling white, steepled churches with muck and knocking 19th-century clapboard houses off their foundations.

That's a big problem for a small state that cherishes its history.

The classic villages of clapboard and stone buildings hugging the state's rivers and streams are the essence of Vermont and a big tourist draw. While Irene damaged many "individual gems" with historical and architectural value, preservationists also fear the broader toll the storm levied on entire neighborhoods deemed historically important by the state and federal governments.

A preliminary survey of downtowns and village centers around the state found more than 700 buildings with at least some flood damage, though the ultimate number statewide is believed to be far higher.

"One of the things that's wonderful about Vermont and Vermont's historic resources is each of them is important individually – but it's really the collection that really makes a place special," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of The Preservation Trust of Vermont, pointing out villages like hard-hit Waterbury.

"If you wiped it out, it would be like losing your front teeth."

The vicious rush of floodwaters from Irene that ripped through the region on Aug. 28 spared National Historic Landmarks like the statehouse in Montpelier and President Calvin Coolidge's homestead in Plymouth Notch. One landmark, the American Precision Museum of early machine tools in Windsor, had a flooded basement and damaged grounds.

Still, there were many other historically significant buildings damaged by the flood. In Brattleboro, the 73-year-old Art-Deco Latchis Hotel & Theatre is temporarily shut down while crews repair infrastructure damage from a flooded basement. In Wilmington, an inundated Baptist church built in 1839 is closed for repairs and the beloved Dot's diner, a wood-frame building in the center of town that dates to 1832, is going to be torn down.

"That hits people's hearts more than anything else because it was such a landmark," said Wilmington zoning administrator Alice Herrick.

Wendy Nicholas, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Northeast Office, said while some past mega-storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike hit historic districts harder, Irene still "clobbered" many significant Vermont settlements.

Crews counted 183 damaged buildings in Waterbury's historical district alone, including homes where water from the Winooski River crept up first-floor walls.

"This whole street, Elm Street and Randall Street, everybody had anywhere from six inches to four feet of water on their first floor, it filled their basements and everything has to be replaced, all the appliances, furnaces. There isn't anything the floodwaters, with the mud, doesn't damage," said resident Skip Flanders.

Flanders spoke outside his vacated home, where the inside walls were stripped to skeletal studs as he plugged away at saving the decades-old building with tin ceilings. Like many flood victims, Flanders got a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His grant was the maximum of $30,200 but he expects repairs to cost more than twice that.

In Brattleboro, basement work on the Latchis Hotel and Theater building is expected to cost more than $500,000, said Gail Nunziata, managing director the Brattleboro Arts Initiative, which owns it. They expect to lose another $200,000 in business while they remain closed through mid-October.

"Don't forget, it's foliage season," she said.

Nunziata said the maximum they could get from flood insurance, "which is not a magic bullet," is $279,000. They secured a $100,000 economic development loan from Vermont and are looking at a Small Business Administration loan.

The financial crunch can be especially hard for people without flood insurance. Pastor Doug LaPlante of the Wilmington Baptist Church said the congregation is seeking donations to pay for repairs that will cost more than $100,000.

The Preservation Trust found about a fifth of the buildings they surveyed had actual structural damage to the foundation or elsewhere. Eric Gilbertson, who assessed damaged properties for the survey, thinks most of the buildings he saw can be saved. But he is worried that homeowners with limited resources might not be able to get enough in grants and low-interest loans to do the job.

"I think it may be driven by finances in the sense we have these nice little villages with rows of houses ... And how many of those are people going to walk away from?" Gilbertson asked.

Preservationists were confident there will be enough contractors with the proper skills in areas like masonry and roofing to do the work. Nicholas noted there are no special restrictions guiding work on buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, although local historic districts might set standards.

Still, worries are compounded for historic structures because a common flood-proofing solution is to jack a building's frame above high-water levels. History lovers might blanch at the thought of putting a 19th-century Vermont meeting house on stilts, but officials with the state and FEMA stress that doesn't have to happen.

"A lot of times when the folks were out they were saying, `You need to raise your structure. When you rebuild, you need to raise your structure six feet above the flood plain,' And that's not necessarily true of historic buildings," said Noelle MacKay, state Commissioner of the Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development.

Officials with FEMA and the SBA said they both work with owners of historic buildings. When it comes to flood insurance, FEMA says buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Placed or designated historic through other approved channels get special treatment.

Buildings in flood zones are often raised or relocated, but there are other choices, too. One option is to simply brace the building for the next flood.

In Lincoln, Burnham Hall, a 1920s building by the New Haven River, was "wet flood proofed" after the New Haven River jumped its banks and inundated the building's lower floor during a terrible flood in 1998. The lower level was fitted with mold-resistant walls and a concrete floor.

Building committee member Mark Benz said that when Irene came, volunteers put up temporary flood walls around the windows and doors.

As water flowed outside during Irene, there was a half-inch of water on the floor, but it was a controlled release of "crystal-clear" water from valves designed to relieve pressure. The water was pumped out and the hall was back in business two days

"We're learning to live with the river," Benz said.

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Filed by James Gerken  |