Dark and dreary; it rained and rained and rained for hours, and by 10 a.m. Sun., Aug. 28, 2011, Vermont's public safety officials knew that Tropical Storm Irene was no ordinary storm.
"I don't think we could have predicted it was going to be as devastating as it was when it actually arrived," Vt. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said.
Parts of southern Vermont were already under water, with roads and bridges washed out, homes and businesses were flooded. And the report of a young woman's possible death as she was swept into the Deerfield River in Wilmington brought Vermont's governor to the microphone to offer support to her family and friends and a call for residents to heed the warnings.
It was a sobering moment for those in charge of keeping Vermonters safe.
"That was one of the things that just prompted us to how serious an incident this was," Flynn said. "It would've been one thing if we wouldn't have lost any lives, but regretfully that was only the first life that we lost."
Flynn looks back on that day and those that followed the historic storm, and says preparation made all the difference. Vermont's state emergency plan was put into action-- a step-by-step strategic plan practiced in training exercises year-round.
"Some of the things we did right was that we did plan in advance. We were prepared. We had drilled," Flynn said. "We have our relationships; we knew how we were going to exercise those relationships."
Relationships with local officials, police, fire, rescue, game wardens, the Vermont National Guard and others. It was the first time ever that a specific Vermont statute was put into place. It allowed all law enforcement in the state to be placed under the command of the commissioner of public safety. They gathered and coordinated rescue operations from inside the emergency command center in the state office complex in Waterbury, at least for a while. But they too became victims of Tropical Storm Irene when the Winooski River flooded the Waterbury state office complex, forcing an evacuation to a new site in Burlington. The command center would run continuously; 24 hours a day for the next 16 days. In all, Flynn says 225 of Vermont's 251 towns were affected by the storm. Commodities were brought in by air and on foot.
"I look back on this and when somebody says to me, 'Well, what's the biggest thing you learned from Hurricane Irene?' And it was that I have never been so proud of Vermont in my life," Flynn said. "We had not only state employees out there doing their jobs, when those helicopters landed nine out of 10 times it was a state trooper that was on the ground unloading those."
Donations of time and money also flooded the state and that's where Flynn says Vermont can do better in the future.
"Some of the things that we would do differently is I think that in the future-- and we've looked at correcting this-- I think that we need to be better at how we receive donations and we disperse those donations. I think that's something we didn't get up and going as efficiently as we could have, so we need to get better at that," Flynn said.
But one thing is for sure, from Bennington to Brattleboro, Rochester to Rutland, Wilmington to Woodstock, all across the state neighbors came together to help their neighbors. In times of trouble and tropical storms, Flynn says Vermonters showed their true colors. And while the work to fully recover from Irene is far from over and no price tag can possibly be placed on a catastrophic event that took the lives of six people in our state, Tropical Storm Irene made Vermont strong.
Flynn was on the job as public safety commissioner just seven months when Irene hit. But he says he felt like a seasoned veteran by then after a Nor'easter and historic spring flooding earlier in the year.
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