COMMENTARY: Irene's lessons echo in Baton Rouge
One of the first calls I had in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene was from a Republican senator from a far-distant state. He told me of his concern about what he and his constituents were hearing about the storm's devastation in Vermont, and he pledged to me his support for the congressional action that would be needed to help Vermont recover and rebuild. I've made similar calls when disasters have struck other parts of our nation.
As we mark the fifth anniversary of Irene, our eyes, and our hearts, are drawn to those suffering the ravages of another storm, far from us, in Baton Rouge. We see Louisiana families and small shop owners, mucking out their homes and businesses. We hear from town officials who haven't slept in four days as they scramble to mobilize urgent relief in their communities. These fellow Americans are in dire need of both our concern, and our helping hands.
Five years ago this weekend, Irene struck like a boulder crashing into a calm pond, and we Vermonters reacted in outward reaching ripples. In the first circle we protect our families, our homes, and our neighbors. When the storm arrived Marcelle and I were home in Middlesex. After hours of rain the small spring-creek on our side hill was roaring like a train, flooding the culvert in front of our home with woody debris. If it breached, the town road would be lost.
So we got to work, raking and pulling out the limbs and logs. Inside to rest a bit, my phone was ringing as Vermonters from around the state called to tell me how bad things were. Our routine, well into the evening, was 30 minutes out with Marcelle clearing the culvert, and then 30 minutes on the phone with Vermonters, then back to the culvert. All across our state Vermonters were immediately pitching in, securing their families and homes, and helping their neighbors. A brave few had the duty to leave their families to rush to these scenes of devastation, and some of them tragically lost their lives.
All of our circles expanded the next day as we ventured out and saw that our towns and countryside had been clawed apart by the rushing water. In the next days towns came together to provide food, water and shelter. Volunteer networks were organized, cows got milked, and power was restored.
Governor Shumlin and I crisscrossed the state with General Dubie of the Vermont National Guard to see the destruction. One of the images that I will carry forever is the solitary, small, proud, hand-written sign that we saw in Waterbury. It said: "Thank you volunteers. You continue to give us hope." Those precious seeds of hope blossomed into determination and strength. That hope brought forth the resilience which is at the core of Vermont's character. They are distilled in two words that will forever signify this ordeal and our state's response. Those two words of course are: Vermont Strong. And we are stronger together.
I went to work in Washington, bringing posters of my Irene photographs to the Senate floor and into Appropriations Committee hearing rooms to fight against some who argued that there was no money left at the end of the fiscal year to help Vermont. Those photos and testimonials softened many hearts, and they also helped convince a majority of senators that their states could be next. In the end, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies were all funded to become full partners in Vermont's recovery. So far well over $500 million in federal support has come to Vermont for our Irene recovery.
Federal help has been crucial, in a true partnership with Vermonters. I am so proud of the state, local and volunteer networks that sprang up and have been sustained in Vermont. The Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, the first of its kind in the nation, was critical, and state, federal and nongovernmental agriculture organizations quickly organized to help farmers through the disaster. Each phase of disaster recovery takes time, and my staff and I are still working with FEMA, HUD and other federal agencies on many Irene projects, with millions of dollars of help still at stake.
One of the lessons from Irene is that we are stronger together, Vermont Strong. And as Americans we are all in this together. Those suffering in Baton Rouge need to know that Americans take care of our own – and we will.
U.S. Senator Patrick Healy represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate.
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