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Vermont still working to recover from Irene

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
A home ruined in Tropical Storm Irene lies abandoned in Pittsfield, Vt.
Kara Fitzgerald weeds a field at her new farm location in Shrewsbury, Vt. Two years after Irene washed away ten acres of summer crops and topsoil, Evening Song Farm is back selling produce — thanks in part to borrowed money and borrowed land. Today she grows crops on a hillside about a mile away from her ruined plot.

WALLINGFORD, Vt. — Two years after Tropical Storm Irene washed 10 acres of crops and an entire field of top soil down a valley between the Vermont mountains, Evening Song Farm is distributing produce again. But it will be years, if ever, before the ground is productive again.

Kara Fitzgerald and Ryan Wood-Beauchamp now grow their crops on a hillside about a mile away. The soil there is damp and not as good as the bottom land along the river, but with careful attention, over time, it can get better.

Like thousands of Vermonters whose lives were forever changed by Irene, the 28-year-old vegetable farmers picked themselves up with help from strangers, a small amount of government assistance and a series of loans.

And work. Hard, never-ending work.

“In some ways we feel like the storm was yesterday. Our recovery is still full-on,” Fitzgerald said one recent morning as she took a break from picking carrots. “It was a real good opportunity to throw in the towel.”

Two summers after Irene dropped up to 11 inches of rain on parts of the Green Mountains, the state is nearing the end of its official recovery. The state and federal governments have spent more than $565 million to help Vermont recover — not including private donations and money people spent on their own — and the final bill is nowhere near ready to be counted.

There are still hundreds of people and businesses whose recovery is still in progress and some are still looking for permanent homes. Nevertheless, a series of celebrations and commemorations are planned for next week, starting on Wednesday's anniversary.

“It doesn't mean there isn't more work to do,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who will visit the hard-hit community of Wilmington on Wednesday and eat chili at Dot's, an iconic local restaurant all but destroyed by the storm but now a potent symbol of the town's resilience. “We're going to make sure everybody gets the help they need, and they will.”

When Irene roared up the coast, it killed at least 46 people in 13 states with a handful more in the Caribbean. Many in the northeast breathed a sigh of relief when the New York City area was largely spared.

But then the storm settled over the Green Mountains and Irene became the biggest natural disaster to hit Vermont since an epic 1927 flood.

Irene killed six in Vermont, left thousands homeless and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway. Of the state's 251 towns, 225 had infrastructure damage.

Thirteen communities were cut off from the outside world after flooding washed out roads, electricity and telephone communication. National Guard helicopters spent days ferrying supplies to stranded residents.

When the waters receded at last, the state created a cabinet-level position to focus on recovery and opened nine long-term offices to help residents. More than 150 cases remain open.

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