In Wilmington, Shumlin spoke to a crowd gathered on the lawn of the Crafts Inn, located on the Deerfield River that overflowed its banks and flooded the town a year earlier.
Shumlin recalled hearing the first reports of damage during Irene. The first call came from his brother Jeff Shumlin, who reported that Hickory Ridge Road in Westminster West had been washed out.
“About an hour later I got photos sent to me of Sam’s Army and Navy Store and Flat Street in Brattleboro. Not long after that, I got a call that Wilmington was totally underwater, and that you were totally isolated. There was no way to get to emergency crews in. My emergency management folks were asking about routes up over the mountains in from western Massachusetts.”
Shumlin said that was also when he heard about the death of Ivana Taseva, a Macedonian woman who had been living and working in Wilmington. Taseva had been riding in a car that was swept away by the floodwaters. Taseva and her two companions made it out of the car and attempted to make their way to higher ground, but she was swept away. “That was the first recognition to me that we were in for a terrible storm.”
Shumlin said Wilmington had come to represent the phrase “Vermont strong,” a slogan and symbol of Vermont’s resolve to rebuild after the storm. “There’s no better example,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better example of a community pulling together and helping out neighbors, helping out friends, helping out strangers - not only the people of Wilmington who are Vermonters, but the way second-home owners joined with you to help raise the resources and muck out and dig out.”
Shumlin said there were many in the community to thank, but singled out Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March as an example of the local officials who helped to guide the town through the disaster. “It’s because of the Ken Marches across Vermont that we are where we are,” Shumlin said, as he presented March with an “I am Vermont strong” license plate, “As a token of our appreciation for the extraordinary work you and your team have done to ensure that we didn’t have more deaths and tragedy, and got back on our feet as quickly as we could.”
March thanked his fellow chief, Wilmington Police Chief Joe Szarejko, for his help during the emergency. “It was a team effort, and this (license plate) belongs to everyone who did so much work on that day.”
Shumlin also acknowledged local legislators John Moran, of Wardsboro, and Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, for their work, both at home and in Montpelier. “Ann was here in Wilmington when Gen. (Michael) Dubie and I got off the chopper after the storm. She took me over to the Town Hall and showed me the waterline from 1938 and she showed me the waterline from the flood that had just gone through. Ann has been like a dog with a bone getting the resources, help, and commitment you need, and John has done the same thing for the towns in his district.”
Chief among the legislative achievements, Shumlin said, was a bill that would ensure that towns would pay no more than three cents on their tax rate for recovery and rebuilding – any costs above the amount raised by the three cents will be borne by the state. “They sent me a bill that says we will not shift the cost of Irene to the hard-pressed property tax payers of the state of Vermont,” Shumlin said. “If it affects your property tax by more than three cents, the state pays, and property tax payers don’t. That was a huge help to Vermonters.”
Under another bill, the state would reimburse owners of destroyed primary residences who are participating in the FEMA buyout program. Under that program, the federal government pays 75% of the value of the house. Under the legislation passed during the last session, the state would pay 25%, making homeowners whole.
Shumlin said the state had made remarkable progress, but there was still work to be done. He said the state would continue to work with towns on the recovery. “There were 225 towns impacted, and the agency of transportation and my staff are going to keep working with your town manager and selectboard to help you get through the (federal) bureaucratic maze. We won’t let your hand go, we won’t leave you behind. We’re going to be supporting appeals with FEMA when they say they’re not going to reimburse you for bigger culverts and higher bridges so that we can be better prepared for storms of the future. We’re going to appeal those decisions and make FEMA do the right thing , so when the next storm blows through here we’re not rebuilding the same roads and bridges and asking for federal and local taxpayer dollars when we should have done it right in the first place.”
Shumlin said the state would also stand with Vermonters who experienced not only the loss of their homes and all their possessions. He noted that 7,000 people registered with FEMA for personal property damages, and 5,000 people have received some help from the federal government. But he said the 700 “toughest and most needy cases” still haven’t gotten the help they need from FEMA, and even those who had gotten some federal aid have outstanding need. “We’re going to work with them as a Vermont family to get what they need,” he said. “We all know that, with the paltry $30,200, the maximum you can get from FEMA, when you had a mortgage on a home, lost your home, lost your belongings, the gap between what you have and what you need to get back on your feet is huge.”
Shumlin urged people to buy the “I am Vermont strong” plates, the proceeds from which go toward flood relief in Vermont. “If we can sell just 50,000 of those Vermont Strong license plates, we raise another $1 million for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund to help the most needy people of Wilmington and other communities get back on their feet.”
Shumlin also remembered the six Vermonters who lost their lives in the flood, including Taseva. “Her family in Macedonia can’t be here to know that our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
Before Shumlin headed to Jamaica for the next stop on his tour, Manwaring presented him with a copy of Twin Valley High School’s 2012 yearbook, which includes a photo acknowledgement of Irene by students as part of the front and back pages.
Manwaring chided Shumlin that she hoped it would remind him of the value of small schools and that he would “use this as an inspiration as you take over the responsibility for the outcomes of all of our students in Vermont.” She referred to a change in the department of education that puts the education commissioner and the department under the governor’s office.
“This means a lot to me,” Shumlin said. “Thank you, Wildcats. And I happen to be the first governor in 50 years that is a product of small schools in Windham County, and I’ll never forget that the reason I’m your governor is because of those schools. As a dyslexic kid I couldn’t have learned to read if it weren’t for a teacher in one of those small schools who took me to her home and doggedly taught me to read. And, believe it or not, it really helps to be able to read if you’re a governor.”