by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 1, 2011
A NATURAL DISASTER MEETS UNNATURAL GOVERNING PRINCIPLES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I write this at the end of three very long days covering Tropical Storm Irene and its aftermath here in southern Vermont.
When I live, my wife and I were extraordinarily lucky.
We live on a hill, and are nowhere near any river or stream of consequence that could flood.
We only lost power from about eight hours on Sunday, or only a couple hours more than the power outage we had after a violent thunderstorm the Sunday before.
We still had dial-up Internet access and battery backup power, so I could still keep updating the running story at my newspaper's Web site, even though I was doing it by lantern light for a few hours.
But only a few miles from my home was utter devastation.
The low-lying area of downtown Brattleboro, just two blocks from my newspaper's office, there was a flash flood when Whetstone Brook left its banks. You may have seen the YouTube footage on the network news programs.
The two-to-three feet of water in that part of Brattleboro on Sunday receded by the end of the day, leaving several inches of mud and silt on the streets and dozens of businesses, homes and apartment blocks with major flood damage.
I was in downtown Brattleboro on Monday, and it was a surreal atmosphere. On one end of town, there was no sign that a 100-year flood had taken place. On the other end of town was damage that may takes weeks, or even months, to repair.
Route 9, the main east-west road in southern Vermont, was completely washed away in several spots between Brattleboro and Wilmington, the little town that is at the midpoint between Brattleboro and Bennington.
The Deerfield River flooded Wilmington's downtown and exceeded the high water mark from the fabled Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the benchmark for severe and deadly weather in our region.
One of my reporters, who lives in the Deerfield Valley, had to detour to Massachusetts to get to Brattleboro. Every road to Wilmington was washed out. She managed to get into Wilmington after the water receded on Monday, and she was shocked at the level of damage. You could see the water line on the walls of many buildings.
One young woman drowned when flood waters engulfed her car.
Another of my reporters paddled in a canoe over a section of Route 5 in Westminster that flooded on Monday when the nearby Bellows Falls dam had to do an emergency water release. A popular farm stand and bakery was swamped with water from the Connecticut River that went up to the top of the gas pumps in front.
My third reporter, who lives in the West River Valley, saw washed-out roads and bridges galore in her sector. A couple of towns needed to be resupplied by helicopter because there was no other way to deliver emergency aid.
I was by the banks of the Whetstone in Brattleboro on Monday with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. When I met up with them on Williams Street, they were looking at a building where the back portion had been washed away during Sunday's flash flood. It was one of several stops they made that day around Vermont. Both were shaken by what they saw.
The damage reports from Irene around the state were disheartening, but the response of the state, and of individual Vermonters, was amazing.
I've said on many occasions that Vermont is different from other states, that there is a sense of community and civic responsibility that is nearly extinct elsewhere. That spirit is carrying the state through a difficult time.
I wish I could say the same about the politicians, particularly those of the conservative persuasion, in Washington.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said last week that emergency aid will not be released for states hit by Irene until other federal programs are cut to offset the spending. Some of the cuts will come to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and first responders.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that, during the Bush Administration, Cantor supported the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war and raising the debt limit (five times) without asking for a penny in spending cuts.
Right now, FEMA's disaster-relief fund, which is used to reimburse local governments and individuals for the costs of cleanup and repairs, is so short on money from all the wildfires, flooding and tornadoes that already happened this year that payments for some projects are being delayed.
With Irene causing billions of dollars of damage from the Carolinas to the Canadian border, this no time to be shortchanging disaster relief. This is cruel, stupid and despicable.
But House Republicans seem to be doubling down on the stupid. The Associated Press reported that the House Appropriations Committee has approved cuts to funding for "hurricane hunters" - the military planes that fly into hurricanes in order to measure and track them.
All this is to be expected by a political party that hates government, especially when it helps Americans in need.
This week marks the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush Administration left New Orleans to die. The fecklessness of FEMA, an agency that was gutted by budget cuts and stuffed with cronies who knew nothing about emergency management, during and after Katrina showed the nation what happens when you allow people who don't believe in the public good to run government agencies.
FEMA has improved since then, and their staffers are quite familiar with Vermont. They spent most of the spring in northern Vermont dealing with record flooding of Lake Champlain and heavy rains that sparked flash floods on the Winooski River. They are on the case again in the Green Mountain State for the aftermath of Irene.
This is what government is supposed to do. It provides hope to the hopeless. It provides reassurance in a time a crisis. It provides the resources to help those in need.
The people in positions of responsibility in my brave little state of Verrmont have lived up to that standard this week. I only wish people like Eric Cantor could see beyond winning elections and keeping power, and do what is it right.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He is currently the news editor of The Commons , a nonprofit weekly community newspaper published in Brattleboro, Vt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.