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National Guard Airlifts Supplies to Vermont Towns Isolated by Irene’s Flooding

August 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The National Guard airlifted food and supplies to dozens of Vermont towns on Tuesday, after Hurricane Irene sent rainwater surging down hills and mountainsides, washing out bridges and roads. Gwen Ifill discusses relief efforts with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The Vermont National Guard sent in helicopters and heavy trucks today to get supplies to hundreds of people. The dramatic relief effort was triggered by Hurricane Irene’s weekend assault.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: The airlift order went out as a dozen Vermont towns lay cut off after Irene sent rivers of rainwater surging down hills and mountainsides.

GOV. PETER SHUMLIN, D-Vt.: We have seen so many heartbreaking stories that it’s — we need all the help we can get.

RAY SUAREZ: Cavendish, Hancock, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Strafford and Stratton were among the places hardest hit. Statewide, 260 roads and 30 bridges were washed out by 11 inches of rain.

ANASTASIA RIKARD, Hurricane Irene victim: Water started coming through the front door. I mean, I knew things were getting bad. And then the walls started to break and the molding started to pop, and I knew I was really in trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: Roads turned into rivers in Upstate New York and New Jersey as well. Emergency crews in Paterson, N.J., rescued people from flooding that turned their homes into islands and kept coming.

And in Manchester, N.H., on Monday, a man and his two daughters were found cling to buoys after they tried to jet ski on a roiling river, and the jet ski was swept away. Their life jackets kept them afloat.

AL POULIN, Manchester Fire Department chief: The gentleman was very cold, very cold, very frightened. He was very disappointed in himself, but he saved his own family by first having PFDs on, and then keeping them all together.

RAY SUAREZ: Others were not so lucky. A number of deaths blamed on the storm came after its passing from drowning or electrocution. Meanwhile, an estimated 2.5 million people still had no power, but that was down from the nearly 7.5 million at the height of the storm.

And in North Carolina, where Irene first made landfall in the U.S., some 1,000 people were still in emergency shelters. The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, visited today, promising help.

SECURITY OF HOMELAND SECURITY JANET NAPOLITANO: We’re going to take care of the immediate needs of all of the states and communities affected by Hurricane Irene, and we’re going to be leaving or having in all of the affected states FEMA coordinators, federal coordinating officers, to facilitate the movement of disaster declarations, the damages assessments that need to be done.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, early estimates put the storm’s total damage between $7 billion and $10 billion, far smaller than the $100 billion caused by Hurricane Katrina.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the situation in Vermont, I spoke with Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, earlier today. He joined me from Burlington.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Leahy, thank you for joining us.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Good to be with you, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You were able to tour your state today. What did you see?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I’ve seen — since the flooding, I’ve seen a great deal of the state. Yesterday I went with the governor by helicopter and have been driving around other parts. We had to use the helicopter, because there’s some of our towns are completely cut off.

There’s no way you can get in there, which creates all kinds of concerns, not only the devastation in the town, but the fact you can’t get medical personnel in, food, water and so forth. So I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this in Vermont.

GWEN IFILL: Which areas of the state would you say were worst hit?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I think the worst hit were down the southern part of the state. Now there were places like Waterbury, which is the next town over, my own town of Middlesex was hit badly, some in Montpelier and elsewhere.

But the southern part of the state, as you fly over and you see bridges out, roads that have just been torn apart, it’s awful. And also the capriciousness of it, you fly along, you see a small town, and everything is in fine shape, fields, the farm fields are fine.

You go just a mile or so further, you see houses have tumbled into the river, the road is carved out. It’s totally impassable. The fields, the farm fields where the harvest should be coming in very soon are just ruined. The whole summer’s work has gone. And so that’s the bad part.

The good part, though, is the spirit of the people here in Vermont. I’ve talked to many, many people I know, many I didn’t know, that were working to try to clean up. I saw one person who was helping to shovel out the mud from a business that had been badly damaged. I said, “Do you work here?”

He said, “No, no. I’m from the next town over, but I just figured these people needed help, so I just came over and volunteered.” And you’re seeing an awful lot of that.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve seen reports that people have been cut off and stranded. How are you getting water and supplies into those areas?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: That is very difficult. And fortunately, we have our Vermont National Guard. Even though a lot of their equipment is over in Iraq, they’ve used the equipment they have. I think they’ll probably be helped by other states.

And we’re using — they’re helicoptering in food and supplies. They will build temporary bridges, temporary roads, get trucks of water in. We can take care of the short term. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be comfortable for the people that are there, and thank goodness it’s not in the middle of the winter. But the long term is going to be very, very difficult to repair, some of those roads.

GWEN IFILL: Is the worst passed? Have all the rivers crested?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: We think the worst has passed. I mean, there’s still a certain amount of runoff from the — from the mountains. There’s still a lot of fast-moving water, which, of course, creates a danger for people who come too close to banks. That’s where some of the deaths have occurred in Vermont.

But I think the worst has passed and certainly the weather report is such that we’re going to have some clear weather. If were to have another very, very heavy rainstorm in the next day or so, it could be devastating.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, I know you’ve been keeping track of the debate about federal funding for disasters. How costly does this seem like it’s going to be?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, we don’t have all the figures in yet. It will be costly. You know, it’ll be a big burden for a state of only 660,000 people. So we will need federal disaster area. But we’re not the only ones. Every state hit from the Carolinas up are going to feel it.

Now I take it with a bit of a grain of salt, some of the debate on whether we could afford, as a nation, the money for this. We’ve spent — we’re spending several billion dollars a week in Afghanistan. We spend billions, hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, a war we never should have been in.

Now if we can spend, well, eventually amount to several trillion dollars in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then say, well, we can’t afford to help Americans in America? No, I can’t accept that, and I can’t imagine anybody that could.

GWEN IFILL: Was Vermont blindsided by the force of this storm?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No, I think we were — you know, we were as prepared as we — as we could be. Obviously, we have not had a — as they say, there hasn’t been a storm like this — certainly not in my lifetime — but we prepared all the ways we could.

But as the governor pointed out, we’re a state of mountains and hills and valleys. All these streams and rivers come down in different directions. It’s not like being a coastline along an ocean, where you have some idea of just which way the water goes. Here it goes every different direction.

And I think that they prepared just as well as they could. But some things you can’t prepare for. If the water hits too hard, wipes out a road, a bridge, there’s nothing you can do to prepare for that.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Patrick Leahy, thank you very much.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, thank you for caring and thank you for showing what’s happened in Vermont.