Many Still Unsettled A Year After Tropical Storm Irene's Destruction

08/20/12 7:44AM By Nancy Eve Cohen
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VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
Lisa and Gary Alexander walking the path their house took when it was washed away by Tropical Storm Irene. The couple is living in a furnished apartment, still waiting to learn whether FEMA will buy them out. The garage is still standing.

Nearly one year ago Tropical Storm Irene clawed apart more than 500 miles of state roads and dozens of bridges, isolating thirteen communities. The flood washed about 1700 Vermonters out of their homes.

Today most of the roads and bridges are back and people are safe and secure. But many are still unsettled and the wounds are still raw.

August 28th began like any other Sunday morning for Lisa and Gary Alexander. The couple had breakfast together; eggs and toast followed by a trip into town for ice coffee. The couple, in their 50s, had lived here next to Gilead Brook for 32 years. Gary's grandfather lived here before them. It had always been an idyllic spot where the family gathered for picnics and the children played in the brook. But by midday the water was transformed.

"It was dark, it was black and it was really fast," recalled Lisa Alexander.  "And I came back to him and said, ‘We need to go'."

Even their cat Mickey, who usually hides, appeared ready to escape. The couple gathered up their pets and a few belongings: camera, lap top, photographs, and only the drawers from a filing cabinet because they thought they'd be back. But in just a few hours their home was under attack.

"All these big clumps of trees coming down through jammed up here," said Gary Alexander pointing upstream, "and forced the current right towards our house."

At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon the family returned. Lisa headed towards the house with her daughter. 

"Stacy and I stopped right about here," said Alexander walking towards the spot where her house once stood.

She and her daughter watched the water eating away at the foundation.

"I remember for a split-second thinking to myself. ‘This isn't good,' " said Lisa Alexander. "And right after I thought that, the porch, you heard it just creak and it tipped into the brook and the whole house just followed! I swear in less than twenty seconds it was down around the corner and gone!"

Today, nearly a year later the lawn is green and lush. There are raspberry bushes waiting to be picked. But the couple doesn't live here anymore.

"We got two bedrooms. We have the spare bedroom in here," said Lisa Alexander giving a tour of the furnished apartment where she and Gary now live.  "And then... a mud room. If we ever do rebuild I'm going to have one."

But it's not clear when they'll have a new house. This spring the town of Bethel applied to FEMA for money to buy the Alexander's property. But at first the state rejected the project. The couple appealed. The state approved it the second time. 

Now, Gary and Lisa Alexander are still waiting for FEMA's decision

"I'm ready to put this behind us actually and move forward," said Gary Alexander. "And forget about it."

The buy-out would give the couple 75 percent of the pre-Irene value of their home. It would also pay to demolish their old garage. No one could build there again. But the couple doesn't know if or when the money will come through.

"It's frustrating because there hasn't been real good communication with what's going on with the buy-out," said Lisa Alexander. "We're just waiting, waiting, waiting. I keep saying we're getting good at it, but it gets tiring because we have no closure. We can't move on and do anything"

The Alexanders are one of about one hundred property owners who the state has approved for the FEMA buy out.  And there are others in need across the state --- people whose homes were not destroyed, but damaged by Tropical Storm Irene.

"I have yet to have a day that goes by where I don't have somebody that either pulls me aside on the street or calls me or emails our organization asking us for avenues of financial assistance," said Asah Rowles, Chair of the Mad River Long Term Recovery Group.

Rowles said many Vermonters are just now asking for help.

"In the beginning everybody thought there was somebody else out there worse off than them," said Rowles. "And they didn't want to take away from anyone else. o they thought they could do it themselves. And at this point it's much deeper than they thought it was going to be financially and emotionally."

Although many got through the winter, this summer there are new outbreaks of mold. And furnaces that were flooded aren't functioning well.

People who have worked in other natural disasters say recovery is slow.

"We want it fixed yesterday and we want it to be back to normal now," said Christy Smith of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Smith has worked in tornados, floods and hurricanes around the country, including Katrina. She came to Vermont this winter and trained disaster relief case managers, who she said, are key.

"We don't heal well in isolation," said Smith. "Everybody who is recovering needs a resource, a friend, someone to share that journey."

Smith said even though Irene's anniversary is approaching the disaster isn't over yet.

"Communities need to remember that there may still be hurting people in your community," said Smith. "There may still be people who are not wholly recovered yet. And it is our responsibility as neighbors to find them and to figure out a way to move forward, if they don't have enough resources to do it on their own."

Back in Bethel Lisa and Gary Alexander have high praise for people who have helped them, including those in town government.

Walking downstream of their property they pass a sad inventory of their former life: a roll of saran wrap, a scoop from the kitchen, the pressure tank from the well. Strangers who find things prop them up on rocks or hang them from trees.

"There's some boards from the house, the yellow boards, there," said Lisa pointing towards the stream bank. "And somebody hung what looks to be a dress."

And there's part of the roof, twisted on top of a pile of rocks and trees.

"We needed a new roof," quipped Gary Alexander. "But this  isn't the way to get it."

Gary and Lisa say a sense of humor helps them cope with their loss.

Gary still mows the lawn where the house used to be and points out a lilac bush he rescued along with a rhubarb plant and some peonies.

"His grandmother had planted these peonies," said Lisa pointing to some plants.  "We found them over the bank and so his brother and him put them in buckets and stuck them in the ground. And they're doing OK!"

When the Alexander's grandson was born three and a half years ago  they imagined him playing in this brook, where their children grew up. If the town buys the land with FEMA money the couple hopes it'll be turned into a park where their grandson can play in the water.

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