Vermont Strong: A Transportation Tale of Recovery from Irene's Devastation

When Tropical Storm Irene struck the northeastern United States one year ago on August 28, 2011, dozens of lives were lost and $15.8 billion in damage was incurred, mostly due to inland flooding. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Irene now ranks as the costliest Category One storm to strike the U.S.

Flooding was especially severe in Vermont and New York, where small streams turned into raging rivers that wiped out covered bridges, dams, homes, and other infrastructure. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg issued an unprecedented evacuation of low-lying areas, and for the first time ever shut down the city’s subway system.

In Vermont, widespread flooding took the lives of six people. Five hundred miles of state roadway, 34 state bridges, and 200 miles of railway suffered catastrophic damage and 13 communities were isolated. Vermont state officials estimate that Tropical Storm Irene caused $486.2 million in damage to state and local highways, bridges, and railways.

A recently released documentary by The American Association of State Highway Officials' Transportation TV highlights the amazing recovery effort by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and its many partners in “Vermont: One Year after Tropical Storm Irene.”

VTrans officials credit private citizens who became an army of public servants; hundreds of workers and equipment from Maine and New Hampshire Departments of Transportation; 800 National Guard troops from eight states; and approximately 2,000 workers from private sector construction and consulting firms.

"We reached out and we got tremendous help from the Maine DOT and the New Hampshire DOT," said Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles in the video. "I think more than 225 people, more than 200 pieces of equipment came here to Vermont and stayed and we will be eternally grateful for their help."

VTrans also worked with Google to deliver real-time travel information to motorists through the “Google Irene Crisis Map,” that showed which roads were closed, and also when they were expected to be reopen.

By December 31st, 2011, just four months after the tropical storm, VTrans reopened every section of closed state roadway. However, the recovery is still ongoing, and climate change will undoubtedly continue to pose serious impacts on transportation.

“There is plenty of evidence leading us to conclude that it will probably happen more often, hopefully not at this scale, but we’ll deal with torrential rains…more often in the future,” Searles said.  

According to a Transportation Research Board report on the issue, every mode of transportation in the U.S. will be affected as the climate changes. Flooding from rising sea levels and more intense storms will threaten roads, railways, transit systems, and airport runways in coastal areas; extreme heat could compromise pavement integrity and deform rail lines; and heavier rainfall in many parts of the country will challenge drainage structures.

In a session on adaptation to climate change I recently participated in at the American Public Transportation Association's annual Sustainability & Public Transportation Workshop I learned the Federal Transit Administration is funding pilot projects across the country, including in Chicago and Philadelphia, for transit agencies to inventory assets that could be jeopardized due to extreme weather events and heat.

All transportation agencies should be undertaking similar preparations. And, they can and should learn from Vermont’s example that showed how strong leadership by state transportation officials and the work of committed citizens allowed them to literally pick up the pieces to restore their state’s infrastructure.