Tent school and FEMA red tape color Moretown’s Irene experience

Cheryl Brown, administrative assistant for the Moretown Town Clerk's Office, works on the town’s latest Irene-related project in the temporary town office near the town landfill. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Cheryl Brown, administrative assistant for the Moretown Town Clerk’s Office, works on the town’s latest Irene-related project in the temporary town office near the town landfill. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

MORETOWN — During Tropical Storm Irene, Moretown seemed to be located in the “eye of the storm,” said Duane Pierson, principal of the Moretown Elementary School.

Moretown was surrounded by nature’s unprecedented rage as floodwaters of the Mad River spilled into the village, but the town remained calm and collected as it began to rebuild, Pierson said.

The storm had passed, but it would return when the town began to count the damages, a tally that continues today. After the storm, 50 homes were flooded, 40 roads were damaged and many culverts and drainage systems could not match the swollen river.

The cost of municipal infrastructure damages, which include roads, culverts and bridges, totaled more than $2.3 million, said Tom Martin, chairman of the town’s selectboard.

During the August 2011 storm, the Moretown Elementary was flooded four inches deep with sewage and river water and the town office was flooded beyond repair.

The paperwork is still mounting and the rain still sounds an alarming chill for many town residents, but the community that was physically divided by a raging torrent remains more tightly bound in its settled wake.

Students gathered in the backyard of the Moretown Elementary School under tents after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the school in 2011. Photo courtesy Moretown Elementary School.

Students gathered in the backyard of the Moretown Elementary School under tents after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the school in 2011. Photo courtesy Moretown Elementary School.


 

Moretown tent school

This week, students at Moretown Elementary returned from their summer vacation. Two years ago, the school was a temporary evacuation center. That lasted about two hours before its seven occupants darted for the hillside in the wind and rain as floodwaters seeped inside, Pierson said.

The storm tore homes from their foundations, smearing what was left with debris and mud, and cut off the trampled roads with heavy silt, delaying school openings across the state for more than a week.

Before the school building was close to operational, the students needed to get back to school, Pierson said.

“We really felt a duty to the community to get some sense of normalcy back to the kids and the families,” Pierson said.

For the first week of school, the students left for field trips. The second week, they returned to three large wedding tents, a pop-up camper and a Red Cross tent located on the baseball field. This served as the temporary “Moretown Tent School” as the sewage-saturated carpet was replaced, Pierson said.

Teachers still taught, Pierson said. This time, however, they set up on blankets and chairs as parents and other members of the community helped serve food and warm drinks.

This year, he said the returning students have a stronger relationship with their peers and a new respect for their natural surroundings.

“We have a pretty healthy sense of respect for the river,” Pierson said. “There is this kind of knowing what we went through as a community and a real sense of pride and sense of place.”

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, had a son entering the second grade when the school opened a week late two years ago. She said it was a challenge to return to school immediately after the storm, but Principal Pierson, the teachers and staff made the transition surprisingly smooth.

She recalled speaking with a teacher from Duxbury who was helping to clean up the school after the storm. Grad asked why she was there and not at home in her own town helping to clean.

“These are our children, they are all our children,” the teacher told Grad.

A swelling stream of paperwork

While there were many boots on the ground working to rebuild the town’s damaged infrastructure, fancy footwork with the Federal Emergency Management Agency was one the town’s most successful feats, town officers say.

The town worked closely with FEMA during the audit process, following their rules and procedure with meticulous attention, Martin said. Ninety percent the town’s infrastructure costs were reimbursed by FEMA. Five percent of the local match was paid for by the state, totaling 95 percent reimbursement for the town’s infrastructure repair projects.

Cheryl Brown, the town’s administrative assistant, said it was not easy to work with FEMA’s nine project specialists. After the town was ruled eligible for disaster aid, she worked 60 hours a week, up from her usual 35-hour work week, she said.

In one situation, a FEMA project specialist was not going to award money for a ditch that was washed out because the new stone that was placed in the ditch was for mitigation and therefore not covered by the public assistance fund, Brown said.

A cabinet full of color-coded files documenting Moretown’s infrastructure projects following Tropical Storm Irene sits in the temporary town office, 10 miles from the village. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

A cabinet full of color-coded files documenting Moretown’s infrastructure projects following Tropical Storm Irene sits in the temporary town office, 10 miles from the village. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Brown disagreed. These rocks were washed out during the storm, and she found photos from 2008 to prove it.

Brown keeps all of project documents in separate binders, color-coded by project size — blue for projects costing under $75,000 and red for those costing more. The town has about 32 project binders filed neatly in the relocated town office.

Even with such detailed records, the work was not easy, Brown said. With every FEMA project specialist came a new set of paperwork, she said, which was often redundant and time consuming.

“It’s been a struggle,” Brown said. “We’ve had to work for everything, but we are really happy.”

In some situations, the project specialists did not provide the towns with the necessary information they needed to file for reimbursement, Brown said.

For example, the town had more than $500,000 in contractor expenses. None of the nine FEMA project specialists informed the town how they should apply for reimbursement, she said. Without the help from a private auditor, who informed the town that they were missing crucial information, Moretown would have had to pay the bill, Brown said.

“There was a lack of communication, that is just another thing of this disaster,” she said.

She is still working on the town’s latest filing, located in a red binder 4 inches thick, for the construction of a bridge on a class 3 road that connected one house to the rest of the town. The town’s portion of the $1.2 million project cost is $65,000.

A new town office

The Mad River’s flood waters washed out the town offices, which is now partly stripped to its studs and vacant. The temporary town office is located at the town landfill, nearly 10 miles from the village. The town is using the tight space free, Brown said.

The town plans to replace the former office with a new building behind the old office in the village center. This comes after the Town Office Committee vetted 18 locations for nearly two years, Martin said.

The town received a $700,000 grant from the Vermont Community Development Program to build a new building that will cost an estimated $835,000. The town will vote on the plan in November.

The town will receive a $68,000 grant from FEMA to destroy the old town office for hazard mitigation.

John HerrickJohn Herrick

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