MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont has become a national leader in how to respond to natural disasters, Gov. Peter Shumlin says, and there's little he'd change about the state's handling of flooding after Hurricane Irene.
"We have a combination in this state of fortitude, good judgment, independence and common sense that led to a response that averted extraordinary disaster, and I think we have a tremendous amount to be proud of," he said. "I can't think of big things that we would have done differently because it went so well."
Shumlin made the comments during an interview in his office ahead of the anniversary of Hurricane Irene hitting Vermont as a tropical storm. Irene unleashed devastating flooding on Aug. 28, 2011, killing six in Vermont, forcing thousands from their homes, washing away hundreds of bridges and miles of roads, and cutting off some communities from the outside world for days.
He acknowledged that he's not a man given to retrospect but said the state must focus on the lessons it learned from Irene that will help put it in a better position with storms in an era of climate change. Long an advocate of taking climate change seriously and reducing carbon emissions, Shumlin called Irene "an example of what we're going to deal with in a small New England state in an environment that has burned too much oil."
Shumlin said he learned for the next disaster that he must focus on taking care of himself by eating regularly and getting more sleep. The days after Irene found him touring Vermont by National Guard helicopter, viewing countless homes and businesses ripped from their foundations and destroyed roads and bridges, and consoling the families of those who had died.
"It was a good five or six weeks of just intense crisis management, that's all you can call it," he said. "I think you'd have to have no soul not to come out of that feeling depressed."
He listed a series of lessons the state had learned from Irene, but he said they weren't just things he, his administration and Vermont at large should have done differently. Rather, he said, they point to approaches the state should take again the next time disaster strikes.
One: Rebuild expecting high water. From flooded basements redesigned to let water flow through them to larger culverts carrying streams under roads, Vermont is reconstructing with flood resiliency in mind, Shumlin said.
Two: Make sure a range of state-backed loans are available for businesses affected by a disaster. The federal Small Business Administration processes loan applications too slowly, Shumlin said. Vermont's ability to process business disaster recovery loans within three days is "the reason that we didn't lose hundreds and hundreds of businesses," Shumlin said.
Three: Partner with different state agencies, state and local governments and the private sector. Shumlin said the head of a construction company told him he could reopen U.S. Route 4, a main east-west artery through central Vermont, if the state could meet three conditions: lift restrictions on big trucks, let the private construction firm work with the state Agency of Transportation and allow crews to use stone that had been washed into rivers and use them in rebuilding the road.
The result: Route 4, which looked from aerial photos as if a giant had taken big bites out of it, was reopened 18 days after Irene; Route 9 in southern Vermont was reopened in 11 days, Shumlin said.
Four: Reuse the regional incident command centers that helped ensure that the right services were getting to the right places.
Five: Step up efforts to build redundant government computer networks. Shumlin said the state narrowly averted a bigger disaster when the headquarters offices of several state agencies were flooded in Waterbury.
"We just happened to have people on the ground in Waterbury, techies, in that storm, who pulled out the right equipment so that state government could continue to serve the people that expect us to serve them," he said. "Had they not done that extraordinary effort ... we would not have been able to enroll new applicants for state government services for months and months and months."