Fixing our roads: Vermont rebuilds with an eye to the future
The destruction and flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene stranded several communities across Vermont — a shocking reminder of the significance of an infrastructure that sometimes gets taken for granted.
Roads and bridges are crucial links in any transportation network, especially in rural places where they often serve as the only option for movement between distant communities.
The state Agency of Transportation (AOT) has been meeting two of the major challenges raised by Irene’s destructive forces. It responded to the immediate damage from Irene and now is addressing the long-term planning issues associated with maintaining the state’s roads and bridges in the face of such intense weather events.
Irene hit Vermont on Sunday, Aug. 28, bringing torrential rains that spawned severe flooding across the region. The AOT responded swiftly, working to be everywhere possible and quickly implementing temporary improvements to restore access.
State offices were closed on Monday, the day after the storm, because of flood damage. Despite this additional impediment, the AOT — one of the first lines of defense during natural disasters — assembled a team to monitor radio updates from the agency’s 65 maintenance garages and evaluate the scope of the damage.
By the end of that first day, the scale of the disaster had become apparent: roads and bridges across the state had been decimated by the storm, and 13 towns — Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Rochester, Stockbridge, Strafford, Stratton, and Wardsboro — were inaccessible.
By the next morning, Aug. 30, the AOT began setting up two incidence command response teams to assist with the deployment of resources and recovery efforts. An incidence command response team (ICRT) is commonly used by all levels of government to command, control, and coordinate emergency response.
The two teams were quickly deployed to Rutland and Dummerston, areas hardest hit by the storm, and were operational by 6 a.m. Sue Minter, AOT deputy secretary, said that the rapid deployment of both teams was crucial, as was getting the required communications technology set up within such a short time frame.
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[CAPTION] Route 4 in Killington and Mendon was washed out in several places, cutting off Rutland from the eastern part of the state.
The Dummerston ICRT included 53 consultants, 120 AOT district staff, 149 employees from the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT), 20 employees from the New Hampshire DOT, 166 National Guard members, and 60 contractors with various numbers of employees.
The Rutland ICRT included 49 consultants initially (this number later grew to 82), 200 AOT District Staff, 200 employees from the Maine Department of Transportation, 500 National Guard members from six states, and 125 contractors with various numbers of employees.
Minter estimates that contractors have deployed more than 1,000 employees combined to rebuild roads and bridges.
As the IRCTs fielded incoming calls, officials organized available resources and allocated them to the areas most in need of assistance. Minter notes that the IRCTs deployed the resources quickly and effectively, emphasizing the ongoing dedication of the team members, many of whom worked nonstop, 16-hour days.
By evening of Aug. 31, access was restored to 12 of the 13 communities that had been rendered inaccessible by the storm. The next day, work to provide full access to Wardsboro, the last isolated town, was complete.
Once access was restored to all communities, the AOT turned its focus to assisting utilities as they worked to restore power to residents across the state.
By Friday, Sept. 2 — five days after Irene — electrical power had been restored to the vast majority of residents, and AOT’s priority shifted to reestablishing the state’s east-west routes, vital to commerce and tourism.
On Sept. 16, a major milestone was reached with the reopening of Route 4 in Mendon. “We have teams working non-stop, these folks are so dedicated,’ said Minter.
In the short term
With cold weather approaching, AOT’s immediate focus now is to finish repairing the state’s roads. The agency has expedited the contract approval and ordering processes to move projects along as rapidly as possible within the parameters dictated by federal agencies.
“Our goal is to have everything traversable by winter,” said Rich Tetreault, AOT Chief Engineer. “People may have to drive a little slower in some locations, but they will be able to get where they need to go.”
Inspecting and opening bridges as soon as possible is another significant task. The AOT is making headway here, also. “Bridge crews from the state came and inspected structures in town within the first two days after the storm,” reported Keith Mason, foreman of the Pawlet Town Highway Department.
The AOT has inspected every bridge in the state at least once; some bridges have been re-inspected due to heavy rains that continued to fall after Irene. In some places, the AOT has been able to reopen bridges — but in many others, bridges were destroyed.
“In most of these cases we will be putting up temporary structures that will have to be rebuilt,” said Minter.
The majority of these temporary structures will be prefab steel trusses, which can be constructed much faster and require less foundation and concrete work. But each bridge site presents a unique situation that must be carefully evaluated, even for temporary structures.
In some cases, temporary bridges will be built off-alignment with roads to allow unhindered construction on permanent replacements. And in certain locations, temporary bridges will be longer than the bridges they are replacing, as this configuration requires less time for construction of foundations.
Once temporary fixes to the state’s roads and bridges are complete, AOT will shift its focus to the construction of long-term structures.
The flood disaster also highlighted the importance of secondary and tertiary town roads. In many towns where state roads became flooded, town roads higher up on mountainsides and further away from floodwaters provided access to areas that otherwise would have been cut off from the rest of the community. Most significantly, these roads connected people and communities to emergency services.
“Alternate routes enabled emergency response vehicles to get where they needed to be,” said Mason.
In the long run
Beyond initial recovery efforts, Irene also has raised a number of long-term questions.
Aware that climate change means a future that may hold more intense weather events, AOT is coordinating with the Agency of Natural Resources and the Climate Cabinet formed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year.
The issue: to evaluate how the current infrastructure may need to be modified. These considerations include the sizing of culverts, road construction and locations, and stormwater and runoff management.
“We understand pretty well what’s needed to insulate ourselves against flooding events,” said Tetreault. “The Interstates and Route 7 fared well during Irene.” The fact that populations in Vermont have typically developed along river valleys is one of the main challenges that the AOT faces.
Tetreault reports that AOT is working with fluvial geomorphologists, or river scientists, from ANR to understand river conditions, the implications of road placement, and the long-term paths that rivers could take.
Such projections are essential components of AOT’s plans for the future. ANR’s assistance also is crucial for short-term fixes. Many complex factors must be weighed. And decisions made now will affect the state’s streams and rivers not only at the spot of construction or repair, but also far downstream and far into the future.
AOT’s goal is to work with rivers — not against them — and use the aftermath of the flooding as an opportunity to get things right.
“It’s a real opportunity for us to be thinking long-term, as we know that we have invested in those areas that have been so hard hit,” said Minter.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet and may be contacted at www.nathanielrgibson.com.
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus Vermont Recovery Special Feature, Vol. 2 on September 23 to commemorate Vermont’s response to Tropical Storm Irene.