Bethel's Political Infighting Hampers Recovery Effort
10/01/11 8:35AM By Kirk Carapezza
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(Host) Most towns have gratefully accepted offers of help from neighbors in the month since Tropical Storm Irene ripped through Vermont. But as VPR's Kirk Carapezza reports, officials in one Windsor County town have largely declined similar assistance. And some say that's thwarting the town's recovery.
(Carapezza) Drive through Bethel these days, and signs of how Irene tore apart this blue-collar town still turn up around every corner.
Here's a twisted guardrail hanging from a washed out bridge. There's a row of obliterated mobile homes.
These are the physical markers, but there are also less obvious political ones, too.
(Peila) "I don't even think we've touched the need. I really don't."
(Carapezza) Leslie Peila says that's because hostility between town officials and volunteers is stunting Bethel's response to Irene.
(Peila) "One of our cars is actually under the house; the other one is flipped on its side against a tree, filled with mud."
(Carapezza) Each day since Irene destroyed her home four weeks ago, Peila has been driving a rental car to the clearinghouse set up inside Bethel's Town Hall. Peila is a personal wellness coach and mother of four. She comes here for emotional support and for essentials.
(Peila) "After you go through that initial ‘survivor thing' you start opening your eyes and seeing all the things that you need."
(Carapezza) Simple things like someone to talk to, tooth paste, bed sheets, dishes.
(Peila) "The big thing has been cleaning supplies."
(Carapezza) Volunteers at the clearinghouse say they've helped nearly 400 people - providing them with basics, answering phone calls and just listening.
But the Bethel Select Board told the volunteers it was time to leave the building this week because, according to recent minutes, they've failed to outline "the continuing need for the facility."
(Taft)"The challenge right now is keeping the doors of the Town Hall open."
(Carapezza) That's Amber Taft, who's taken on the role as Bethel's Disaster Relief Manager.
(Taft) "So we have no email. We log everything into notebooks."
(Carapezza) Taft has been working 12 hour days, and she argues that her team should be able to stay in the building.
(Taft) "This is where we've been working out of. People are now familiar with us and the fact that they can get aid here."
(Carapezza) But town officials say the space is no longer available.
Vermont is known for - and even proud of - its sense of community. While many hard-hit towns - Granville, Plymouth and Rochester - struggled to cope in Irene's immediate aftermath, many communities have since regrouped.
(McCormack) "Because we seem to be getting such a big turnout we're moving the meeting down to the cafeteria."
(Carapezza) State Senator Dick McCormack has witnessed towns banding together all over Windsor County. At an informational meeting, McCormack says that's not yet the case in Bethel.
(McCormack) "This disaster has brought many communities together. It seems to have broken Bethel apart into hostile factions."
(Carapezza) Other towns held meetings each day after the storm - in some cases three times a day. In Bethel, it wasn't until the Friday after the storm that the Board called a meeting. So McCormack organized one himself.
(McCormick) "It's no disgrace to the town government if they were overwhelmed because it was an overwhelming flood."
(Carapezza) But town officials didn't welcome the meeting. Longtime Town Manager Del Cloud says the local government wasn't overwhelmed, and he just didn't see the point of it.
(Cloud) "The problem with the meetings being held when information is not available is that you contribute to rumors, hearsay. And there hasn't been much that actually could be looked to as fact and basis by which somebody should make a decision."
(Carapezza) Dave Aldrighetti is the Bethel Fire Chief. He supports the actions of the Select Board.
(Aldrighetti)"If anybody wanted any information it was there. All you had to do was ask."
(Carapezza) This past week, the board forced volunteers to vacate and hand over the keys to Town Hall.
Earlier, as volunteers packed up boxes of shoes around her, Leslie Peila said she had come to depend on the clearinghouse as a place to gain some sense of normalcy - some peace of mind.
(Peila)"This Town Hall is being used for what it's supposed to be: the heart of Bethel. It's not a big showpiece."
(Carapezza) Many say the Board is still ignoring the crisis. Others say small talk and chatter are bringing Bethel down. But everyone hopes the epic flood of 2011 will eventually show how Bethel can come together.
Select board minutes from Bethel and many other communities can be found at VPR's Public Post.