Although the price tag of Wardsboro’s damage may be below other towns in the region, the town was battered hard by Irene. Wardsboro Brook, which is usually little more than a rocky trickle that feeds into the West River, became a raging torrent that destroyed anything in its path, including houses and roads. Many homes along Route 100 were flooded, and at least four were damaged enough to make them permanently uninhabitable.
The damage to the roads from Wardsboro Brook cut Wardsboro off from the north and the south along Route 100. In some places, such as West Wardsboro, Route 100 was completely washed away. Side roads, too, were damaged or destroyed, either by runoff or by even small brooks along the roadsides. After the storm, Wardsboro was essentially cut off from the rest of the state. Local contractors immediately began rebuilding roads, and within a week, it was possible to access Wardsboro from the south on Route 100. A damaged bridge kept Route 100 to the north of Wardsboro closed for several more weeks.
Since then, the town has continued to repair the damage, and Tomkins, who is also the town’s first constable, says Wardsboro is making an effort to mitigate future storm damage. “We’re upsizing culverts and putting in a lot of ditch stone in places that needed stone,” he says. “FEMA pays for it, and it helps reduce the impact of future disasters.” If towns fail to follow hazard mitigation guidelines, Tomkins says, FEMA won’t continue to reimburse them for damages. “If you fail to put in ditch stone and a road washes away twice, the third time they’re not going to pay the full amount.”
Another strategy is to build “brake dams” that slow the runoff and ease the pressure on culverts and ditches.
One project, at Ayres Bridge, will use something called “partially-grouted rip rap” to prevent future erosion. Tomkins says the large stone will be deposited into the stream bed and held together with concrete to help stabilize it. “And we won’t have to dig down as far into the stream to do the bridge work,” he says. “If we had to dig deeper, the whole abutment could collapse. It’s a federal highway technique that’s used in a lot of places, but it’s new for Vermont.”
Tomkins says Wardsboro started with 85 separate repair projects, which got consolidated into 62 FEMA projects. A year after Irene, only a few projects are left to be completed, including four large box culvert projects. “We’ve been pretty aggressive,” Tomkins says. “And we’re watching our money, we’ve started calling manufacturers to see if we can get things like culverts cheaper than the contractors.”
Currently the cost of repairs has hit about $1.4 million, but Tomkins says that’s likely to rise by another $400,000 to $700,000 before all of the projects are finished. FEMA will pay 90% of the tab, and the state will pay another 5%, leaving the town with the remainder. But Tomkins notes that Wardsboro will only pay a maximum of $50,000 thanks to a state law passed last year, which limits towns’ liability for Irene repairs to 3 cents on the tax rate. “So the state will pick up everything after the $50,000.”
The owners of three houses are planning to take advantage of FEMA’s buyout program. “One is a permanent residence, one is a second home, and the other was a second home that was rented.” Under the program, FEMA will pay the owner up to 75% of the value of the house. After demolition, the property is owned by the town.
Jackie Bedard, who rented one of the houses slated for the buyout program, lost almost everything when the river washed away part of the house. “It wasn’t a total loss, I recovered a little bit of furniture and clothing,” she said. After the storm she was able to move into an apartment owned by her uncle. “I had a place to live. I’m fortunate to have relatives in town.”
Tomkins says the buyouts haven’t been completed yet, but the paperwork has been submitted and the owners are awaiting approval.
Tomkins, who was part of the town’s emergency response from the day of the storm, says if there’s one thing that can be learned from the disaster, it’s “Never underestimate the power of water.”