Posted by: James N. Russo, Federal Coordinating Officer, Burlington, VT
Vermont is a small state with a big tradition of maintaining its historic rural beauty. Tourists flock by the thousands to the state year-round to take in its gentle green mountains and sprawling farmlands interrupted only by silver silos, red barns and white-steeple churches. Many of these visitors come to admire the picturesque covered bridges spanning the state’s rivers and streams.
Before the historic flood of 1927, the number of covered crossings totaled about 500. But the storm completely destroyed more than 200. Over the years, the number of these bridges still standing has dwindled down to about 100.
Tropical Storm Irene damaged or destroyed over a dozen of these bridges, leaving ardent fans of these historic landmarks to do everything they can to restore them. (Some residents are so devoted that when one of the bridges was captured on video during Irene crumbling into the river, audible gasps and cries could be heard from bystanders.)
With help from FEMA’s Public Assistance program, many of these storm-damaged bridges are being repaired and rebuilt in a way that retains their historic character.
“We have the most complete collection of covered bridges per square mile than anywhere else on earth,” says Scott Newman, historic preservation officer at Vermont’s Department of Transportation. “We’re very proud of that collection and we work hard to maintain them in cooperation with the towns, and today with FEMA’s help.”
In recognition of the importance of preserving these portals to the past, whether bridges, homes or other buildings, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program does not require communities to follow the normal federal regulations when rebuilding historic structures. However, owners and applicants are encouraged to make repairs in a way that lessens and prevents disaster damage in the future while retaining historic integrity. Although FEMA cannot reimburse the state for improved renovations, the agency can provide funding to incorporate certain mitigation techniques.
Bowers Bridge, built about 100 years ago in West Windsor, was knocked almost 200 yards from its foundation when huge hay bales careened down the flooded river and lodged against it. Its original deck came through the storm mostly intact, but its roof, which was replaced in the 70s, was badly battered. The top is now being rebuilt just like it was at the turn of the century – by hand in the old English joinery style, using wooden pegs and grooves instead of nails – but will be raised by 18 inches to allow more water to pass beneath it.
The Brown Bridge in Shrewsbury is another bridge that remains part of the community’s colorful past including tales of roaming bandits. Many residents in the community remember having picnics on it as children. Although the Brown Bridge did not sustain much damage – just a few holes from floating debris – the road on one side was destroyed.
To prevent this from happening again, the approach will be rebuilt with a fortified stone wall. Also, special material, known as geosynthetic, will be placed under the pavement to absorb moisture and prevent the soil from buckling the road.
Once these and other bridges are restored, there will be much cause for celebration. Says Shrewsbury resident Michelle Suker, “When I'm coming home I miss my bridge. I have told my girls that the day that we're able to cross the bridge again, I think I'm going to stop and get out and kiss it before we drive across. It will be an emotional moment.”