As the mud is cleared and moldy sheetrock is torn out, it is becoming very clear that there is a great deal of work yet to be done – post Irene – to keep many homes safe from the Mad River and its tributaries.
And it is also becoming increasingly clear that rebuilding efforts on Bridge Street in Waitsfield cannot go forward until the town, with the state of Vermont, comes to some decisions about river remediation and management for that area.
At a special meeting of the Waitsfield Select Board this week, board members heard of at least two areas where immediate stream work is necessary to prevent further erosion and to get water flowing back in its normal courses.
The board, meeting in its temporary offices at the Valley Players Theater on September 19, responded to comments from dozens of people who filled the theater’s bleacher seats.
Brad Long and his wife Jessica were present at the meeting. They live near the bottom of North Fayston Road where Shephard Brook jumped its banks, created a new channel, pushed one house off its foundation, cut off several other houses and continues to run through new channels.
“How do we find the help we need to prevent the six houses in this area from being destroyed in the next flood. Patrick Ross from the Agency of Natural Resources came by and explained how to put the water back in its channel, and there is 300 to 500 feet of bank that needs armoring. The question becomes how to pay for it and who pays for it?” asked Long.
“Is this a town issue? At least to restore the stream so that it has a channel to run through. But rip rapping property owners’ land?” he continued.
“I don’t know the answer,” said select board member Charlie Hosford.
“Can we go to FEMA to get help as a group or neighborhood,” Long asked.
Town Administrator Valerie Capels explained that the town could apply to a national emergency watershed fund but noted that she has no specific answers yet.
Ann Van Zyl, who lives in that neighborhood at the bottom of North Fayston Road, said she felt the people who owned the house that was destroyed and dumped into the brook did not care about its impact on the neighborhood.
Hosford told her that the owners of that home were unable to do anything until its insurance company declared the house totaled and then they could tear it down.
Insurance agent Jon Jamieson said that the insurance company had just given the owner, Mr. Kenney, permission to dispose of the house shortly before that meeting. Jamieson said that the owner would now have funds to pay for disposal of the house.
Undeterred by that information, Van Zyl went on to decry the hazard that the destroyed house represented and noted that after talking to the owner of the destroyed house she felt she was stupid to have expected the owner to apologize for contaminating the area, including her lawn, with house debris.
Fred Messer, the town’s emergency management coordinator, said that there is very specific language that the town needs to use in applying for federal disaster assistance funding, including pointing out that the work needs to be done to prevent future loss of life and property and damage to infrastructure.
Bob Hennessey and Karin McMullin are both owners of condominiums at Riverhouse on the west side of Route 100 just south of Rolston Road. They came to the board with an aerial picture of the Mad River’s carnage immediately upstream of the property and a request for help in preventing further loss of the land on which the development sits.
“Our neighbors to the south lost over 30 feet of bank and backyard to the river and their truck ended up in the river – it’s still there. Because the river changed course and jumped its banks at the stop, the water is now headed straight towards our condos. We are worried that any future flood or even a high water event would carve away the rest of the land and undermine our buildings,” Hennessey said.
Determining how the town handles the river is also a concern of Bridge Street property owner Jason Gulisano. He owns the blue building on Bridge Street where he operated the Green Cup Cafe and where eight other businesses and two residences were located.
He said he can’t make the decision on whether or how to rebuild until he knows what – if any – steps the town and state are going to take to protect the historic Bridge Street neighborhood from future flood events. He said he is committed to the location and even willing to go deeply into debt to rebuild his building and restaurant, but said that some resolution of the future of the river as well as the future of the Birke Photography studio is needed before he can proceed.
The Birke Photography Studio was located on the western abutment of the Waitsfield covered bridge and was pushed off its foundation and into Gulisano’s building during the flooding.
Capels explained that prior to the flood, the town had been working on a river flooding remediation plan for that area but that it was not complete yet. She said that the town and the state were anxious to address the situation. Others present at the meeting urged the town to remove gravel from many more places in the river beyond the five sites approved by the Agency of Natural Resources.
That comment prompted others to point out that whatever one town does upstream is going to impact the next town downstream and that there has to be some sort of a plan for managing rivers while also allowing the river to run its own course and maintain its own health.
The select board will continue its weekly meetings, reserving time to discuss post-flooding needs and issues through at least October.