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Gain, strains in Vermont a year after Irene

Homes, roads redone, but lives still altered

Last year, Chris Webster (left) tried to ride his bike on a flooded playground in Rutland, Vt. Residents have mostly rebuilt over the damage.

CALEB KENNA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Last year, Chris Webster (left) tried to ride his bike on a flooded playground in Rutland, Vt. Residents have mostly rebuilt over the damage.

RUTLAND, Vt. — Tropical Storm Irene’s rough handiwork is fading along Meadow Street, a year after the floods. Stains from the high-water mark are faint. The shimmering sludge that blanketed the neighborhood park is gone.

But something more troubling remains in a working-class neighborhood that was economically fragile even before the deluge.

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“You ask my wife. I’m lucky if I sleep two or three hours a night, especially when it rains,” said Louis Ross, who abandoned his house when more than 13½ feet of water stormed into the basement and soaked into the first-floor walls, several inches high.

“When it rains,” he said, “I’m out there all night on the porch.”

Last year, Ross and his wife lived in a motel for 3½ months. They cooked meals on a hot plate, and their four children stayed with relatives. They returned home only to live upstairs for six weeks while workers ripped sheetrock from the first-floor walls.

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“There’s a lot of stress,” Ross said. Weathered lines beneath his eyes were moist with tears as he sat in a kitchen where the smell of new cabinets and woodwork had replaced the stench of sewage-laced floodwaters.

“We try to talk about it,” he said of how his family is dealing with Irene’s aftermath, “but no one wants to.”

The distance Vermont has traveled since Irene washed away roads, destroyed bridges, and damaged homes last Aug. 28 can be measured in part by the months of repairs and millions of dollars of aid distributed to thousands of residents and businesses. By the last day of December, all 531 miles of damaged state roads had reopened.

Other effects linger, defying the kind of statistics that fit easily into reports.

“There are things we can put our hands around, and there are many costs we will never know, especially the costs to individuals,” said Sue Minter, whom Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont appointed to be the state’s Irene recovery officer.

Damage wrought by the storm in Vermont is now estimated at $733 million, she said.

The destruction brought a few blessings, though. Many roads that suffered from inattention or a lack of repair funds got a makeover.

“We had loss of life here and significant impacts,” said Tom Donahue, head of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. “But the other side of that coin is that we’ve got a series of freshly paved roads and bridges. I’ve been driving on these roads myself, and I ride a motorcycle. Roads that haven’t been repaved in years are now paved.”

Leaving coastal cities such as Boston and New York comparatively unscathed, Irene struck hardest inland in places such as upstate New York, and its impact on Vermont was particularly devastating.

Roads closed by storm damage hobbled Vermont’s fall foliage season, which provides a major chunk of annual revenue to hotels and restaurants. Then, the state suffered another blow when winter was bereft of snow, which lures skiers most years. Residents are marking Irene’s anniversary with a mixture of optimism and reflection. Over the weekend, communities began holding ceremonies and potluck dinners to commemorate losses and celebrate what has been accomplished since last year.

Vermont Recovering Stronger,” a status report sent to the governor in June, details disaster relief, such as aid to people and businesses affected by Irene, temporary shelter for the displaced, home building projects, and assistance for farmers.

The work continues, Minter said, even though “right now, 100 percent of our roads are operable. We’ve also now come to the stage of saying, ‘How many of these emergency repairs do we have to go back to again and make permanent repairs?’ ”

That is as true in houses and neighborhoods as it is on the grand scale of state infrastructure. Teenagers shoot hoops on a Meadow Street basketball court where sludge once stood ankle-deep. But homeowners say leftover sediment still runs into yards when it rains.

“It’s been a very dirty ride, for sure,” said Benjamin Layden, one of Ross’s neighbors. “It smelled like death for a good month after Irene.”

Layden moved back into the upstairs of his house sooner than others on the street. His was the only home that didn’t lose power, and he worried about reports of looting.

Still, he did not cook a meal there for nearly three months, “and the cleaning was nonstop. You’d clean something, and 15 minutes later it would look dirty again, with all the silt in the air. It was horrible.”

Meadow Street runs through a neighborhood known as “the Gut,” home to many of Rutland’s poorest residents. The block where Layden and Ross live is as low-lying as any in town, which made it particularly vulnerable to flooding.

Old houses are tucked close to each other, and residents cannot afford to sit back and watch contractors repair all the damage, so Layden carried dozens of buckets filled with sludge out of his basement.

Next door, Ross said he and his son tore out ruined floors for a small hourly wage, paid by an insurance company, because it was less expensive than hiring a crew. Insurance reimbursement for other costs took months, he said.

Much of the equipment Ross used as a self-employed painter and drywall installer was destroyed, and not yet replaced, lowering the family’s income because Ross lacks equipment for larger, higher-paying jobs.

A few people who read about the family’s plight last year sent $200 checks, which Ross said was of great help when they lived in a motel.

“We’d like to invite the people who donated to us for a cookout,” he said. “We really would.”

Layden said insurance covered about three-quarters of what it cost to repair his house, but he paid the remaining $7,000. On top of that, for a month he could not get to his job as a chef at a restaurant near the Killington Resort because Route 4 heading east from Rutland was washed out.

But the experience brought people together, he said. During months of hardship, Layden, Ross, and their neighbors began watching out more for one another and their homes.

Throughout the state there “was a sense of unity and a sense of common purposes that brought people together,” Minter said. “The tragedy was transformational in many ways. Obviously, our environment was transformed, but our communities were, too.”

One change, inevitably, is that not everyone wants to stick around, in case something like Irene happens again. Asked what is next, now that a year has passed, Layden smiled.

“A ‘for sale’ sign,” he said, and invoked the names of distant states like Colorado.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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