STOCKBRIDGE, Vt. — After hundreds of thousands of tons of rock were hauled out and tens of thousands of man-hours were spent, Vermont celebrated the completion of the biggest single engineering challenge following the flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene.
Just in time for the new year, and four months after the storm hit, Route 107 between Bethel and Stockbridge was reopened Thursday. The state highway, a major east-west thoroughfare, is the last to reopen after being closed by flooding.
The road's reopening was marked with a ceremony at a Stockbridge school, where scores of local residents and state officials tossed fluorescent orange baseball caps into the air.
"It will cut our commute time down, it will lessen our trauma of looking at all the damage and the moonscape," said Stockbridge resident Melissa Thompson, who had to navigate a 70-minute detour to get her son to school and to get to work for the past few months. "We'll probably miss all the flaggers (who) we got to know on the way. It just means so much to us to not have to make that commute every day."
Much remains to be done on Route 107 and across the state, but Vermonters used the reopening as a moment to pause and celebrate. Many people 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.
The repair of Route 107 posed one of the biggest tests 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.
Irene ripped up Vermont on Aug. 28. The downtowns of communities from Whitingham in southern Vermont to Waterbury, just west of Montpelier, were flooded to levels not seen since the state's epic flood of 1927.
Neale Lunderville, the state's appointed chief recovery officer, said it would be years before 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."
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 funneled record volumes of water through that narrow pass, where it tore riverbanks 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. "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."
In the three-mile section of road that was hardest hit, about 4,000 feet of Route 107 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.
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."