After the hauling of hundreds of thousands of tons of rock and tens of thousands of man-hours on heavy equipment, Vermont is ready to celebrate the completion of a Herculean task and the biggest single engineering challenge following the flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene: the reopening of the last state highway washed out by the storm.
Just in time for the new year, and four months after the storm hit, Vermont officials are planning to mark the reopening of Route 107 between Bethel and Stockbridge. The state highway is the last to reopen after being closed by flooding.
The ceremony Thursday at the Stockbridge Central School marks the completion of a huge undertaking in the state's recovery, but much remains to be done as dozens are still struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives. The state is just totaling up the bill, and the Legislature is preparing to deal with a variety of Irene-induced, long-term challenges.
But it was the repairing of Route 107 that posed one of the biggest challenges following the storm that left a dozen towns cut off from the outside world for days, damaged or destroyed more than 500 miles of roads and 200 bridges, killed six and reshaped much of the low-lying countryside.
The stretch of highway between Bethel and Stockbridge is one of the state's major east-west arteries, and sections of the highway were part of the riverbank where the road and the White River pass through a narrow cut in the Green Mountains. Irene's run through Vermont on Aug. 28 funneled record volumes of water through that narrow pass where it slammed the riverbanks and, eventually, tore them to pieces.
"All of a sudden the road ended and then we were looking at river and mud and what used to be huge sheets of asphalt that had shifted into the river," said Maine Army National Guard Capt. Norman Stickney, of Gardiner, who arrived five days after the storm to begin rebuilding. "It was like something fell from the sky and completely crushed all of the asphalt and scooped it away and dumped it into the river."
Irene tore Vermont apart. The downtowns of communities as far apart as Whitingham in southern Vermont to Waterbury, just west of Montpelier, were flooded to levels not seen since the state's epic flood of 1927.
The remnants of Irene forced the state to abandon, at least for now, much of its office complex In Waterbury, which was damaged by the storm, and the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin is now making plans to find a new place for the patients who had been at the State Hospital _ part of the Waterbury office complex.
"In the last four months, Vermont has made remarkable progress in repairing and rebuilding damaged infrastructure," said Neale Lunderville, the state's specially appointed chief recovery officer. "We have made strong progress to assist individuals and families who have been affected by Irene, but in both cases there will still be much to do as part of the ongoing recovery."
Lunderville said it would be years before much of Vermont and many Vermont families are back to what he calls "a new normal."
"If we want to have a robust recovery and one that brings us back to a place where we are stronger, smarter and safer than before Irene, we have to continue to remember what Irene did and what we need to do to recover from that," Lunderville said. "It's going to take a concerted effort and ongoing attention at high levels in order for us to have a really strong recovery."
In the three-mile section of road that was hardest hit, about 4,000 feet of Route 107 road was completely gone, said Vermont Transportation Agency Engineer Eric Foster, who oversaw the rebuilding of the highway. A job that would normally take two years was done in 119 days after the first work crews _ the soldiers from the Maine National Guard and other states _ arrived.
In addition to the guard, it took two contractors, 250,000 tons of rock, at least 20,000 hours of heavy equipment time, 7,500 feet of guardrail, 38 culverts and 46 companies over 16 weeks to repair the highway, according to information provided by the Vermont Transportation Agency.
The biggest challenge was getting the rocks and other fill material to Bethel. A special "rock train" was used to bring fill from distant quarries before it was unloaded a couple of miles from the work site. The train saved an estimated 6,600 truck trips and 55,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
In other parts of the state, officials have said some of the repairs, done on the fly to get traffic moving again, might have to be redone. That's not the case for Route 107.
The roadway was built with layers of different sized rock and the banks sloped to withstand another Irene, said Glenn Cairns, of the Windham, N.H., contractor George Cairns and Sons, which brought its specialized equipment _ excavators and dump trucks that are up to twice the size of those usually found on Vermont highway projects.
It's designed to withstand another "Irene, plus two feet," said Foster.
Both Stickney and Cairn said they were amazed by how grateful Vermonters were despite the challenges they faced.
"Even though these people, their lives were turned upside down, they were friendly," Cairns said. "They really didn't mind sitting in traffic waiting for us _ the hardship that they went through and everybody was just thankful and waved and smiled.
"They went through a lot. I could understand how they could be bitter, `why isn't my road back together,' but I've got to say the people were just extremely friendly and welcoming."