Taking stock: Deployed for the recovery
By Stefan Hard
staff writer | August 26,2012
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
State safety officer Scott Culver of Waterbury holds a commemorative token given to Irene workers and displays his Irene calender featuring his photos of recovery and rebuild operations around the state that he is sellling to raise money for Babe Ruth baseball programs in Vermont. Culver worked out of the Rutland/Bennington Incident Command Center in the immediate aftermath of Irene.
Scott Culver of Waterbury Center proudly wears his VTrans logo shirt on his rounds improving worksite safety for the Agency of Transportation.
Culver’s chest might be a bit more puffed out when he wears that shirt than it was a year ago — before he got the call at 10 a.m. on Aug. 29 while mowing the lawn.
He was told to be in Rutland the next morning at the incident command center there for Irene response.
Culver, an occupational safety technician for the state, was tasked with serving as the head safety coordinator for AOT at the Rutland/Bennington Incident Command during the initial, 10-week emergency response to Irene. For those first few weeks, he worked 18-hour days out of Rutland and saw his family once for eight hours on his son’s birthday.
“I hadn’t missed a ... birthday yet,” said Culver of his four sons. “And I was not missing that one!”
Culver drove up from Rutland, got home in Waterbury Center for a late dinner and a birthday party with family, caught a couple of hours of sleep, and then drove back to arrive in Rutland at 4 a.m.
Culver takes great pride in the work he did after Irene. He keeps the handsome, heavy metal token given to state workers, contractors, guardsmen, utility workers, and consultants who participated in the Irene response. “I know some guys that keep these in their pocket,” says Culver.
When talking to Culver about his Irene experience, he offers a flood of positive statements about the state’s response, especially the success of its incident command system that was modeled after the military.
“We were completely shooting in the dark right from the beginning,” says Culver. “I didn’t even speak to my superior for the first three weeks. We wouldn’t have been able to cope without using the incident command system; it allowed us to all speak the same language and work from a common plan, and that’s Vermont Emergency Management, Department of Public Safety, Agency of Transportation, everybody. It was a very big learning curve, and we were pulling out all the stops to meet the need within a small window: before snow flies.”
Culver said Vermont Emergency Management was flooded out of its Waterbury headquarters by Irene and had to relocate. His home, located on a hillside in Waterbury Center, was untouched.
Dig deeper into his personal Irene experience, and Culver reacts a lot like a military veteran back from a tour of duty: He’s either quick with a restatement of his overall highly positive view of the experience, or he hesitates, a little reticent, and struggling to find enough words to accurately describe such an intense and uncommon experience.
“Yes, I was away from my family for long periods of time,” said Culver, “but at the same time I was aware that a lot of the guys and gals I was working with down there either had damage or were displaced back home; or knew someone who had been affected by Irene or were taking people in. Still, it was the first time I really didn’t feel in control of my life, and not knowing when I would get back home. I really felt ‘deployed.’”
Culver can’t convey only in words the scale of the challenges faced by responders. That’s why he took roughly 15,000 photos at dozens of work sites.
He has images of a helicopter rescue of two stranded construction workers caught with their heavy equipment on a man-made island by a post-Irene flash flood in the middle of a river in Clarendon; no one else has such shots. The workers had four minutes warning of the flash-flood, thanks to radio call from an alert worker upstream.
“We had radios in all equipment,” says Culver. A fast-water rescue team in wet suits had to turn back and a New York State Police chopper dashed to the scene from Albany to hoist the workers to safety. “It was breathtaking and scary,” says Culver.
Culver used many of the images to make an 18-month Hurricane Irene Anniversary Edition Calendar, in which each month features photos of one of the sites Culver visited with his camera while working. It’s one of the most comprehensive printed collections of photos of Irene’s destructive effects and the state’s initial response to restore road networks. It includes photos from town from Rochester to Bridgewater Corners to Wilmington and many towns in-between.
Culver is state coordinator for Babe Ruth youth baseball, and he’s selling the Irene calendars at stores around the state to raise money for Babe Ruth programs across Vermont. He put $2,000 up front to print 500 calendars, and made that investment back.
Culver said he is aware of the misperception that corners were cut in red tape and environmental protection in the Irene response in order to expedite the repair of roads, bridges and culverts before winter. He quickly stops any suggestion that corners were cut.
“Our first job was: Lives,” says Culver. “Protect life and limb and quickly build temporary roads or re-establish travel lanes for emergency services and utility crews. Then repair the infrastructure of the state.”
In addition to state workers, and Vermont contractors and utility crews, Culver coordinated with crews from out-of-state, including National Guard units from Ohio, Maine, Virginia, and New Hampshire.
“They adapted to what we needed in terms of safety rules and procedures because we were in control. It was totally difficult, but the job needed to be done and to pull together the way they did was amazing” says Culver. “My job as safety coordinator was to keep people safe.”
For Culver, that meant the work site safety for about 4,000 workers, many of them working down in riverbeds and next to unstable banks.
“It opened our eyes to the scale of disaster we could face,” says Culver. “We learned a lot about what types of things could happen that we never expected. I mean we had roads and houses washed out on the top of the hill like what happened in Killington. Or like in Pittsfield, you’d have miles of river with houses untouched, and then suddenly you’d have a mile where houses were just destroyed.”
Culver sees new perspectives and long-term goals coming out of Irene.
“In terms of construction and road maintenance, we have to learn how to build better and stronger,” says Culver, “and we can use Irene as an example of why. Then one of the best things we can do is educate on how do deal with what we can’t prevent. We don’t get 9.0 earthquakes in Vermont, but ... let’s have procedures in place.”
Culver said he believes Irene changed Vermont in a fundamental way, and for the better.
“I think we’re now more united as a state in many, many ways,” says Culver. “We’ve developed relationships with other organizations and across organizations in ways that we wouldn’t normally. We have a better understanding of what we are capable of, and we have a system to help. Because it’s not a matter of if we get the next disaster, but when.”
To buy Culver’s Irene calendar to benefit Babe Ruth programs in Vermont, contact him at email@example.com. View many of his photos online at www.timesargus.com/irene or www.rutlandherald.com/irene.