If you drive through the town of Pittsfield, Northfield, Bethel or Bridgewater you'll notice abandoned homes that haven't been touched since Irene. All of these homes have been left alone on purpose,
It's been said you can't go home again, but that doesn't mean John Graham won't end up there by accident.
"Still almost always hit the turn signal to swing off 100 up this road -- the habit is so ingrained," said John Graham. The heap of earth Graham stands on is where his family lived for sixteen years. He's still paying a 100-thousand dollar mortgage on the home that no longer exists. "For me it's like we're on uncharted territory anyway -- and it's all part of it," Graham said.
After Irene, Graham's home was hanging into the stream that flooded his property -- threatening safety of the town water supply. So the town of Rochester had no choice but to tear it down one month after Irene destroyed it, making it one of the staple images of the storm's destruction.
"You're in a situation that none of your experiences prepared you for. "It's something that's so big it seems unimaginable even after it happened," he said.
FEMA gave his family the maximum grant of 32,500 dollars for their total loss. Now all that remains is a mosaic of memories. Amongst the rubble are the simplest of things collected over a lifetime -- we found an Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas tape that belonged to one of his daughters. "It seems more important when you find it again. It's just invested with memory," Graham said.
John Grahams' home is one of two in Rochester that did qualify for FEMA's buyout program, but the home across the street remains untouched one year later and the owners still have heard no word from the federal government on if they qualify for any reimbursements.
"There were 100 applications submitted by towns for home buyouts from FEMA. Apparently 16 of those have been approved to date," said Karen Horn with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
So, believe it or not, Graham is among the 16 'lucky ones'. Most homeowners and their properties are left hanging in the balance, untouched post destruction.
"If property taxes are not paid, for instance, then it would eventually be the responsibility of the town to put it up for tax sale,"Horn said.
Otherwise, it's the responsibility of the homeowner. Most, like Graham, want every penny FEMA might decide to offer them so they're leaving these homes as is, waiting for an assessor.
"The difficulty is there's really not a deadline on the FEMA end," Horn said.
Horn says many families in New Orleans are still waiting for their reimbursements from Hurricane Katrina damage. The Louisiana disaster was far less geographically widespread compared to Vermont, where 14-hundred Vermonters were displaced by Irene. One year later, 700 still have some unmet needs. More are coming forward every day.
"This one was found in the dirt by a house at the south end of town," Graham said.
Pieces of his former home are returned by neighbors on an almost daily basis. A few months after Irene, his family faced another storm -- his mother quickly passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. They've moved into her former home.
"It was sort of a year of boom, boom, boom. It was kind of like a trial and we were tested," he said.
Even after she passed away, Graham's mother continues to serve as a refuge for his family from the wrath of mother nature.
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