On July 19, 2023

‘Here to help’: Pete Buttigieg, federal officials survey Vermont’s flood damage

 

By Sarah Mearhoff/VTDigger

On Monday afternoon, July 17, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg stood on a newly carved cliff, hands on his hips as he surveyed carnage at the Inn by the River, located in this rural Northeast Kingdom town. The former presidential hopeful and now-member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet traveled from Washington, D.C. to see the damage wrought by last week’s relentless rains.

“It’s heartbreaking to talk to the owners of that inn who describe what they had put into building the business,” Buttigieg said at a crowded press conference later Monday afternoon.

Buttigieg was joined by Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt; officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Gov. Phil Scott; U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt.; and local state legislators. A staffer for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., represented the senior senator while he met with Biden at the White House to discuss the federal response to the floods, among other issues.

Biden last week signed off on a major disaster declaration for the state, unlocking vast federal resources to aid Vermont in its recovery. Key to Buttigieg’s department, Biden’s declaration unlocked federal dollars to rebuild vital infrastructure in all of Vermont’s 14 counties. For qualifying projects, the feds will foot 75% or more of the bill, and the state will pick up the rest.

At the press conference later Monday afternoon, located at a Vermont Agency of Transportation outpost in Berlin, Buttigieg harked back to Tropical Storm Irene, which similarly wreaked havoc on Vermont in 2011.

“It’s important to note that Vermont has endured two storms that would be called ‘once-in-a-century events’ in the span of just 12 years,” Buttigieg said in a state garage packed with press, emergency responders and onlookers. “I recall from my time as mayor of South Bend [Indiana] what it was like when we had two events come within two years that should have been once every few-hundred years.”

After Irene, the Federal Highway Administration provided Vermont more than $180 million in emergency relief funds to repair vital infrastructure lost to the tropical storm. “We’re going to do whatever we can this time, as well,” Buttigieg said.

As he heads back to Washington, the transportation secretary said he will take back with him images of the destruction he saw on his drive through northern and central Vermont on Monday: “that hotel in Hardwick that was cut in half and carried down the river,” the “brand spanking new” bridge on the newly completed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail “torn in half by the power of those flood waters,” and “the railroad tracks coming out of Barre, where the track is still there but the ties under it are not — you know a train’s not going to be able to run over that.”

Looking at these scenes, Buttigieg said, “You see just how urgent it is to make sure these communities get the help that they need.”

Buttigieg saw signs of promise, too. He commended Vermont’s local and state response to the natural disaster thus far, and said that cooperation “makes it possible for us to be a good partner at the federal level.”

As federal transportation officials prepare to allocate resources to help local Vermont communities rebuild their infrastructure, Buttigieg told reporters that socioeconomic equity is a priority for the Biden administration. And with so many small municipalities having limited — if any — professional staff, he recognized that navigating the federal aid process can be daunting.

“It’s very important to us to be user-friendly for smaller communities,” Buttigieg said. “I happened to be the mayor of a relatively small city, in the grand scheme of things, knocking on the door of the U.S. [Department of Transportation, and I know what that can be like.”

Bhatt, the federal highway administrator, pledged that his staff will work closely with Vermont’s Agency of Transportation “to find out where those folks are.” He pointed to local technical assistance programs made available to municipal governments to guide them through the process.

“Our message is to communities big and small: The federal government is here to help provide resources that are needed,” Bhatt said.

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