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Remembering Irene: Waterbury’s story of resilience

Published: Aug. 27, 2021 at 5:40 PM EDT
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WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - This weekend marks 10 years since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont and communities statewide are remembering the wrath and recovery.

One of the enduring images from the disaster was the Village of Waterbury’s flooded streets and the state office complex and hospital underwater. “The day after is what’s most vivid in my mind,” said Waterbury Municipal Manager Bill Shepeluk, whose three decades of town management in Vermont could have prepared him for Irene’s wrath. “It was surreal... the emotions were overwhelming to see what had happened.”

When the water receded, the town rolled up its sleeves and began the cleanup together. Neighbors stepped up to help neighbors whose homes were uninhabitable and who weren’t sure what would happen next. “You can’t be thinking too far down the line about what you’'ll do in the future, how things might turn out. The only thing you can do is sit here and think about the moment, one hour at a time,” said Rick Boyle, whose home was damaged.

Roughly 1,500 employees at the Waterbury state office site returned to waterlogged offices. “Everything -- chairs, office papers, files -- everything is covered in mud,” said Christine Murphy, a state worker.

The state scrambled to find places for them to work, not knowing how long that would be for, or if they would ever return. “Salvage what you can and hope you can find a dumpster that’s not full so you can throw the junk in it,” said Stanley Marshia, another state worker.

The state’s mental health hospital was damaged and would never reopen.

But Waterbury laced up its shoes and hit the road to recovery, showing its resilience in the months and years that followed. State lawmakers ended up deciding to invest in rehabbing the Waterbury office complex. Twenty-two buildings were torn down. And rising from the rubble, the state’s largest-ever building project. A $140 million effort largely funded by FEMA. By 2016, the complex was largely back, with upgrades to make it more flood-resilient in the future. The last of those buildings damaged by the storm reopened in 2019.

In the village, businesses also moved back and residents rebuilt. On the storm’s five-year anniversary, community members gathered to snap a photo and mark how far they’d come. By then, most of the physical damage had been repaired and new infrastructure improvements were underway to make Waterbury even better than before.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Is Waterbury more resilient now to flooding than it was in 2011?

Bill Shepeluk: Yeah, absolutely.

Shepeluk says offices destroyed by Irene were moved to higher ground. Generators were installed in public facilities to make sure they stayed online. “If we had eight feet of water on the street again, I think it would hurt, it would not be fun, but I think we’re in a better position to handle that than we were before,” he said.

And Irene reconstruction wasn’t the only major change for Waterbury. It helped lend momentum to other long-awaited projects. Like the Main Street overhaul, which has been under construction for the past three years and in the works since even before Shepeluk interviewed for the job in 1987. “The fact that all of that was able to happen in 10 years is tremendous,” Shepeluk said.

MURAL, PUBLIC ART HONOR WATERBURY’S RESILIENCE

Waterbury is holding multiple events this weekend to mark the storm’s anniversary. In addition to speeches and a ribbon-cutting of the Main Street project, they’ll be unveiling a new mural honoring the town’s resilience from Irene.

Crews this week put the final touches on the Phoenix mural on the side of Axel’s Gallery & Frame Shop on Stowe Street. Owner Whitney Aldrich, a member of Waterbury Arts, says she’s excited to see this piece of artwork soaring towards the sky.

“My face has been hurting all week because I’ve been smiling so much. I’m so excited -- it looks so good!” she said.

The mural was designed by a local resident and inspired by the phoenix lantern that led the River of Light Lantern Parade after flooding from Irene. “Mythical bird that rises from the ashes, and I think we’re going to see this phoenix rise over and over again in the decades to come,” Aldrich said.

Also on display in the window of her shop are pieces from the “Floodgates Art Project,” more than a hundred panels that depict the painful memories of what community members lost in the flooding. Now, those panels are part of local history. Aldrich says, they’re moving to look at, with each bringing a unique perspective to the disaster and recovery. She says the community’s focus on public art marks how far they’ve come since the storm. “It feels like the town is growing up,” she said.

DOCUMENTARY CAPTURES HISTORIC STORM

Part of this weekend’s events includes the premiere of the locally-produced documentary “The 2011 Flood: Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene.”

Cat Viglienzoni spoke with Cheryl Casey, president of the Waterbury Historical Society, about the project.

Click here for a complete listing of this weekend’s events in Waterbury.

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Remembering Irene: Capturing images of the devastating storm

Gov. Scott visits Brandon to mark Irene anniversary

Remembering Irene: Wilmington underwater

Remembering Irene: The destruction and the recovery

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