In Irene’s Wake, Vt. Towns To Bolster Digital Networks

Sen. Patrick Leahy and Paul Costello, the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, announce federal funding for projects designed to bolster towns' digital networks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy and Paul Costello, the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, announce federal funding for projects designed to bolster towns’ digital networks.

When Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont, isolating cities and towns, many survivors logged online to find resources and to seek help. Now, more than 16 months later, rural communities hit hard by Irene are receiving federal aid to implement digital projects designed to prepare them for future storms.

In Moretown, floodwaters jumped the banks of the Winooski and Mad rivers, inundating the post office, town hall and elementary school. The village was evacuated and bridges were compromised. But residents say the town, which was well connected to high-speed Internet, bounced back quickly.

“What we experienced in Moretown was the grassroots organization and communication that makes Vermont strong,” says Meg Allison, the school librarian in Moretown. She’s seen firsthand how communication technologies helped residents respond to the flood and organize volunteers, supplies and services through digital networks.

“We had one thing going for us that some towns did not – a digital infrastructure and a citizenry that knew how to use the tools to communicate, to organize and, ultimately, to continue our long-term recovery,” Allison says.

Before the storm, Moretown had received a federal grant that funded a robust digital network in town. That grant even provided fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders with electronic books. Now, other towns could be so well prepared.

“We’re finding some ideas that we did not have at the time of Irene, and now we’re using that to go forward,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy, who recently announced a $1.8 million grant for broadband development in the state’s most rural communities. The funding is part of a $200 million pot of funding approved by Congress in response to Irene.

As global warming continues to increase the ferocity and frequency of storms, Leahy says local governments must invest now to mitigate disruption in the future. “As many as 25 Vermont communities will have new resources. They’ll get their citizens, their businesses, their farms, their nonprofits online, and they’ll give them better online tools to withstand what we hope won’t be future disasters, but may well be,” Leahy says.

Irene’s floodwaters also damaged several towns’ public records. Paul Costello is executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which is overseeing how the federal grant is spent. He says one thing the initiative can do is help municipalities get records out of basements and “in the cloud” — a method of storing records electronically in remote computers — so that they are not lost and can be accessed remotely.

In Moretown, Meg Allison says Irene brought the community together while highlighting the need for better communication and resiliency. Allison thinks strong digital networks will only enhance towns’ ability to respond, “ensuring that we’re prepared to weather storms, support each other in times of need and bounce back even stronger than ever.”

In Irene’s lingering wake, Allison says access to digital tools and training are no longer add-ons – they are essential.