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VT Law School's Response to Irene Exceeds "Highest Expectations"

September 15, 2011

When the White River raged on Sunday, Aug. 28, it literally changed the landscape of Vermont Law School and nearby communities. Uprooted trees were scattered across fields; farms were transformed into mud pits; floodwaters swirled through homes; roads collapsed; and bridges were broken.

Royalton Bridge. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Royalton Bridge. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Yet while Tropical Storm Irene caused much damage, it also strengthened the foundation of a community as VLS students, faculty, staff and alumni responded with an outpouring of donations, manual labor and legal aid to help their neighbors recover.

"There was a tremendous amount of spontaneous work," VLS Dean Jeff Shields recalled of the first few days after the floodwaters hit. "It was that fanning out into the community and neighboring communities, and thousands of hours of students and staff time trying to be of help at the early, crucial stage. I'm proud of what our people did."

Chris Foy '12. Credit: Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov

Chris Foy '12. Credit: Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov

The law school had its own matters to deal with as the storm caused about $500,000 in damage to buildings, parking lots, the outdoor classroom and Internet servers. There were also logistical issues to address when faculty and students in outlying areas were cut off from campus as the first day of a new school year approached. And there was the immediate challenge of finding housing for students, faculty and staff who were rendered homeless by the damage.

Within days after Irene's deluge, VLS had set up an email address for contributions and created a web page to guide local residents to helpful resources. Three VLS staffers were assigned to work with local communities on flood relief efforts, while the Land Use Clinic and South Royalton Legal Clinic offered help to residents with FEMA applications and insurance claims.

Perhaps most critical to the recovery effort, an estimated 250 VLS students answered the call for clean-up help, many of them mucking through dense mud and silt, others collecting clothes, serving food to volunteers and doing other tasks.

Image of mud boots

VLS students removed mud from flooded homes. Credit: Katie Thomas '13

"The response of the students went beyond my highest expectations," Shields said. "There were so many who reached out to help other people. There are a lot of other things they might have done, and instead they found work boots, work gloves and waders and they pitched in and went at it."

Associate Dean Shirley Jefferson added: "I'm not shocked and I'm not surprised at our students coming to help," said Jefferson, who first arrived at VLS in 1982 as a student. "I'm happy now that there are so many people who can see the beauty and the compassion in our students, things I've always known but now everyone knows."

Operation Revive Royalton

Sarah Buxton JD '10 was among those who quickly went into crisis-response mode. Still in her first year as state representative for Royalton and Tunbridge, she toured the area on Monday morning as the floodwaters were still receding. "It was very clear that the devastation was pretty enormous," she said.

Sarah Buxton '10. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Sarah Buxton '10. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Checking in with local fire and rescue workers and constituents, she learned of the five feet of standing floodwater in the South Royalton School. "I asked the principal if I could organize volunteers and try to start mobilizing people in response to the shock, and start the momentum towards recovery and rebuilding," said Buxton, who also works in the VLS Office of Institutional for Advancement.

Within hours, she had created a Facebook page and established "Operation Revive Royalton." With the help of a few tech-savvy friends, a website soon went up to solicit donations and organize volunteers to help those affected by the storm. "It became an extremely organized operation," she said, noting that in its first days, the effort drew 1,000 volunteers and had raised nearly $20,000 in donations. She went to a hardware store to buy supplies for the clean-up effort, draining the reserves of her campaign fund in the process, and then went knocking on doors to round up VLS students for the effort. "I don't think there's a single person in our town who would say that VLS wasn't integral to the recovery," she said.

Image of VLS students.

Jeff Fucci '14, Carissa Wong '12, Peter Dysart '14 and Molly Gray '14 (left to right). Credit: Carissa Wong '12

And in hindsight, Buxton believes her law school experience has served her well in reaching out to constituents during such a challenging time. "I knew going through law school that I might not be a typical lawyer, but many professors would always talk about the different skills we are gaining through various exercises or class projects," she said. "Whether analytical skills, communications skills, troubleshooting or understanding your client, I knew I had the toolbox of skills that I could draw upon."

Clinics Offer Help--And Experience

Completing the paperwork for federal assistance or insurance claims can be a daunting task for anyone, let alone for residents traumatized by losing their most cherished possessions or having pieces of their home swept downriver. Many victims of Irene also didn't have computers or phone lines available to do so. That's where the VLS Land Use Clinic and the South Royalton Legal Clinic stepped in.

Image of Roof in trees.

Floodwaters dumped debris on the VLS campus. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Just three days after the storm hit, the clinics started to help residents file FEMA's required paperwork or refer them to attorneys for legal help. The Land Use Clinic aided 25 residents in the first two weeks after the flood, said Kat Garvey, a staff attorney and assistant professor. The clinic was staffed by 30 students who volunteered their time, along with 10 faculty and staff members. Its doors will be open six hours a day for six days a week until the end of September.

"I'm so proud of the work that students and faculty at the Land Use Clinic and SRLC have done," said Margaret Barry, Acting Dean for Clinical and Experiential Programs. "It's especially heartening to see even first-year students helping for days on end."

Several people that the Land Use Clinic served had lost their homes and all of their possessions. Others had lost their crops, livestock, work vehicles and equipment -- their entire lives. "These were very hard stories to hear," Garvey said.

There were also cases in which insurance companies made low offers to settle claims, according to Garvey. These cases were referred to outside attorneys because they were beyond the services that the clinics could provide. "What was critical was for these people to get sound advice before accepting the settlements," she noted. But in most cases, the flood victims simply needed help with the registration process for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would determine if they are eligible for grants covering up to $30,000 in losses.

Floodwaters dumped debris on the VLS campus.

Flooded Oakes Hall parking lot. Credit: Top Kat Photo

"I think the main advantage for the students is client counseling," Garvey said. "There are people coming in who have just experienced trauma. They are often vulnerable and ill equipped to respond to the FEMA process. This gives the students an opportunity to learn the important skills of listening, recognizing that empathy is appropriate and useful in helping people, and to learn that by applying these skills they can provide help in the administrative process and identify the legal issues that require referral."

And their help has clearly been appreciated by those needed it. "Despite the trauma, everyone who has come in has been very gracious," Garvey said. "Not only have they said ‘thank you' to everyone who helped them, but they've said ‘thank you' to the whole room."

Shelter from the Storm

Before he enrolled in law school, Janssen Willhoit spent a year working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in a Kentucky rescue mission, serving as an employment counselor with displaced residents. The experience served him well in the aftermath of Irene.

Now a 2L, Willhoit and his wife had attended church services and were trying to make their way from Bethel back home to Tunbridge during the height of the storm. They found their normal route impassable so they took the back roads from Randolph Center, where the Vermont National Guard was on standby at Vermont Technical College to rescue flood victims.

Image of Janssen Willhoit.

Janssen Willhoit '13. Credit: Janssen Willhoit '13

The next morning, Willhoit began calling churches to find help for residents displaced by the flooding. What materialized was an agreement with VTC to use unused dormitory space as a temporary shelter for evacuees. Many had been treated for injuries at the local hospital and released but were unable to return to their damaged homes. The dorm rooms housed up to 20 people. Some came with bandaged wounds. Willhoit worked with Buxton to arrange for an emergency medical technician to volunteer at the shelter. A home health nurse also came to the shelter each day.

A 94-year-old woman was among those displaced. She suffered an ankle injury in the evacuation. "It took a couple of us to help her and move her. She was a really sweet lady," he said. He worked on having her admitted to a nearby nursing home after she spent several days in the shelter. Willhoit was there around the clock until classes got underway two days later than scheduled due to Irene. He then continued serving at the shelter on the overnight shift, reporting in at 9 p.m. and staying through the early morning hours.

"It Looks Like a War Zone"

Image of Fox Stand bridge.

Fox Stand Bridge. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Peg Trombly was one of three VLS staffers named to help local communities in the days after the flood. She had served on the Royalton Select Board for five years, including a term as chairperson. Three days after Irene hit, she attended the select board's community meeting, where residents discussed the volunteer response and plans for rebuilding.

"What I took away from that meeting is that there was a wonderful sense of everyone doing their own thing, yet pulling together in such a disaster to reach out and be of assistance," said Trombly, who praised the efforts of the local fire and rescue workers who evacuated residents and then parked their equipment on both sides of the river, so people wouldn't be cut off if the bridges failed.

"A disaster of this magnitude, it was far from people's realization that this could happen. The height of the water was much higher than it has ever been," she said, recalling her drive down Back River Road after the storm. "It's so hard to even process, you just can't believe it. It looks like a war zone with the trees all down. It took a couple of drives down there for me to realize what happened."

Image of J.P. Isabelle.

J.P. Isabelle '11. Credit: Herald - Tim Calabro

Trombly believes the outpouring of support from the students and staff, combined with plans for the first VLS Community Day on Sept. 24 -- a celebration of the relationship between VLS and South Royalton that was planned long before the storm hit -- are all positive factors in helping with the traditional town-gown relationship.

"Certainly the law school offered up their services in wonderful ways. Students participated in amazing numbers," she recalled. "Just the response of the students has been amazing. It was right at the beginning of school and it was a difficult time." And the select board acknowledged the law school's contributions at that initial meeting, she said, adding, "They expressed appreciation."

Efforts from Afar

From more than 800 miles away, Doug Mulvaney JD '83 followed the news of Irene's damage in Vermont, looking specifically for reports about South Royalton. He found a story about damage to the South Royalton School's music room and the instruments it housed. He sent an email to Vermont Law School's newly established contribution link with an offer of help.

Image of Marissa Knodel.

Marissa Knodel '13. Credit: Herald - Zach Nelson

"I live in Elkhart, Indiana, the headquarters for many band instrument companies," he wrote. "If the high school is in need of replacement instruments, I would be happy to see what I could do regarding donations."

Mulvaney has since been in touch with the school's band director and is working to find a company willing to donate or at least sell instruments at cost. He was just one of many alumni who checked in with offers of help, spurred to action by the frustration of being unable to work directly on the clean-up effort.

"I like to help out," Mulvaney said, describing himself as "a recovering band parent" whose college-aged daughter plays trombone in a jazz band.

"I Could Have Lost More"

Image of South Royalton bridge.

South Royalton Bridge. Credit: Top Kat Photo

As associate director of the VLS Land Use Clinic, Peg Elmer is well versed in adaptation and mitigation issues and the worsening storms brought on by climate change. When she bought her circa 1805 two-story Cape home four years ago, she researched its history and learned that it had taken on water in the historic 1927 flood. The house, alongside Route 14 about a mile north of campus, was not mapped in a flood plain, but Elmer knew the scenic White River could crest its banks. "It's a very flashy river," she said. "It goes up and down a lot." She bought flood insurance, hoping she would never have to use it.

As the reports on Irene developed, she checked her sump pumps and was prepared to wait out the storm. But shortly after noon that Sunday, still hours before the brunt of Irene was to hit the area, she watched the river suddenly rise three feet. She called the fire department to say she and her tenant, a VLS student, were planning to evacuate. He told them to leave right away.

When she returned a day later via Route 14 in Sharon, she sensed her home may have been hit hard as she saw the damage that the river caused further downstream. She found her home still sitting on its foundation - "it hadn't budged" -- but the river ran through it.
"It slammed through my house at a level of four feet high and floated my piano," Elmer said. "There was furniture swirling inside."

Two weeks after the storm, the house had been stripped to bare bones and Elmer was contemplating her plans to rebuild. Does she build four feet higher this time? She recognized the ironies involved, the dilemma of rebuilding in an area that may be prone to flooding and that her background in land use is what prompted her to be among the few to have flood insurance. And then she managed a moment of humor in reflecting on her work. "A lot of our projects (at the Land Use Clinic) have a filter of climate change and increasing storm events," she offered. "I'm immersed in the topic."

The help of as many as 60 volunteers in a day and the support of VLS staff have helped her through the reality of hauling 16 truckloads of ruined belongings away, including her 200-year-old wide pine floors. "I could have lost more," she said, "that's for sure."

Image of Kirsch House.

Kirsch House. Credit: Top Kat Photo

Professor Barry and her husband, Pat Barry, evacuated VLS's Kirsch House, where they had just moved in July. "We saw the river rising, but it was not until it broke its banks that we got wary. We began to move very fast once it started to cover the nearby parking lot," she said. The Barrys grabbed some belongings and put them in their car, along with their dog. "When we left, we thought the house would be pushed off of its foundation and float down river."

That didn't happen, but the house sustained major damage. The next day, a brigade of students arrived to help pack the belongings that had not been ruined by the flood. "It was so heartening to have the students there. Their energy and resourcefulness allowed us to move past the shock of having the home we had just set up turned upside down," Barry said.

The Bucket Brigade

Rob Caron is a local landlord who rents many of his properties to VLS students and faculty. One such property, a ranch house along South Windsor Street, was particularly hard hit. It housed a VLS faculty member and her spouse.
"All of their possessions were gone," he said, noting the flood waters left a foot of mud throughout the house. Caron recognized that quick action would be critical to salvaging his properties. Carpets, flooring and drywall needed to be removed before mold set in.
And he needed help in not just one house but five.

Image of Jennie Demjanik, Sara Li.

Jennie Demjanik '13 and Sara Li '13. Credit: Herald - Tim Calabro

"It was just overwhelming. Between the law school and the community, people just started pouring in to help," he recalled. At one point, Caron counted upwards of 50 people in one of his homes working bucket brigades - half of them in the cellar and the others on the first floor.

The VLS students were a determined lot.

"Every day until classes started, they came. And every day a different group came. Even after classes started, if they didn't have morning classes, they came," he said. To his surprise, many of the students were just entering their first year at VLS, so they hadn't even had time to establish ties to the area.

"It was hard for them to go back to class. They said they wished they could just stay here to help," he said. "They showed a certain amount of social responsibility."

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