12.21.2011

What lies ahead

Rebuilding Waterbury meeting, facilitated by FEMA
Driving through Waterbury in late December 2011, things look almost normal.  The oversized dumpsters filled with debris that were such a prominent feature of the post-Tropical Storm Irene townscape are mostly gone.  Hundreds of buildings were damaged but relatively few -- mostly centered in the village's two trailer parks -- were destroyed. The temporary FEMA office on the second floor of the fire station has closed.

But appearances deceive.  Many of the homes damaged in the flood are still under repair and are not yet habitable, and there are many displaced families living in awkward and temporary housing arrangements.  Some local businesses have reopened but some have closed and some relocated out of town.  Most of the state office complex, which once housed 1500 workers, is closed and the workforce dispersed far and wide, a situation that will not be resolved for several years to come.

Into this very challenging situation steps the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).  The agency is working specially and intensively with two towns in Vermont:  Wilmington -- where the entire business district was inundated, and Waterbury, where there's lots of damage, and is the community that probably took the single largest economic hit in Vermont from the storm, due the damage at the state office complex.

Last Thursday FEMA facilitated a meeting on Waterbury's future in the local elementary school.  It was well attended and designed to conceive of what the village 'might be' in the future without taking into consideration unpleasant practicalities like funding mechanisms.  A process to come up with a community wish list, with no strings attached.

It was relatively easy for a couple of hundred of engaged, optimistic people (neatly broken up into teams, each assigned with a separate area -- Recreation, Human Services, Economic Development, etc.) to come up with a long list of ideas, some of which are solutions to problems resulting from the flood, some of which addressed pre-existing problems in town.

The FEMA group had experience with other disasters and showed a short video of some folks in Alabama talking about the recovery process in their tornado-devastated community. The FEMA folks, they've seen situations like this before.

I attended this event and sat in on the economic development table.  On one hand, it was a positive event.  Lots of people, lots of energy, the community leaders were all there, there was a palpable frisson of optimism in the air.

On the other hand, however, (and maybe this is a temperamental defect on my part), it was a profoundly discouraging event.  The list of post-flood problems in Waterbury is long.  What was once a pretty thriving (by Vermont standards) community is now regressing backwards. There are many pressing needs, and some -- most? -- will require significant amounts of money to address.   And therein lies the rub...

So to engage in a large scale collective imagineering session paying scant attention to practical realities might feel good for 90 minutes or so.  But on the day after, one wakes up with the realization that the situation has not changed, and that the process of change hasn't even really begun.

Some photos of Waterbury the day after the flood here.

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