Tropical Storm Irene totally cut off 13 communities and blocked travel on every major east-west route.
So it may be no surprise that Sue Minter and Joe Flynn, two of the leaders who rose to the challenge when the state needed them to lead the recovery effort came from the Agency of Transportation.
Sue Minter likes to be helpful. Her first job after graduating from Harvard was with Oxfam, the international hunger relief organization. She holds a Masters degree in city planning from M.I.T, and served in the state legislature before joining the Shumlin Administration as Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Transportation. But none of that totally prepared her for the wrath of Irene last August 28.
"And I was awakened throughout the night with reports from the field," Minter said.
The extent of the devastation was beyond what anyone in state government had experienced. So, the next day, it became clear to Minter that the Agency of Transportation had to transform itself from a long-range planning department into what disaster specialists call an incident command center, with a single, one-track mission-to re-build 500 miles of road and thirty-four state bridges.
"No one ever thought it was possible and I’m hugely proud of the work that was done to make this state come back as quickly as it did and to keep our economy functioning," she said.
Minter says she had no models, no mentors, to help her plot strategy in the first sleepless days of the crisis. But she did have a team willing to fan out in all directions, getting three separate field command centers set up, literally overnight on August 29. The agency was able to re-establish connection with 12 out of the 13 cut off communities within 24 hours. Like many VTrans employees, Minter logged 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week, for the first three weeks. As repair work began on all the major- east routes, she did a troubling economic assessment.
"Would we have interrupted fuel supplies, food supplies, things like that?" Minter said. "We actually had to consider because it wasn’t just the roads, it was the rail system, was also out, so we had freight that wasn’t getting through, very significant scenarios were being evaluated here."
Averting that worst-case scenario, Minter performed so well that in January, Governor Peter Shumlin appointed her to a new job, as Irene Recovery Officer. She was surprised. She doesn’t like to toot her horn, but when pressed says she brings high energy and a collaborative attitude to a conference table.
"You know, I have been a coach for 13 years," she said. "I coached figure skating. I coached soccer. And I guess that remains the way I feel that I am: I’m a coach, helping to coach in incredible team."
But there’s no time for coaching or skating these days, and precious little for her husband, writer David Goodman, and their two children– one in college and the other still at home. Now she’s in what she calls "marathon mode"-working six days a week, breaking for no more than four hours at dinner.
"I am seeing a lot less of my family right now, and we’re doing totally fine," she said. "I mean I have very little to complain about in terms of any kind of loss but it has been a lot of work and a lot of stress."
Since taking the recovery helm. Minter has visited 20 communities throughout the state, collecting success stories but also hearing about pain and loss still felt by many Irene victims.
"Many people are still waiting to find out what’s the future of their going back to their home and are they going to in fact give up that home that they have cherished?" she said.
By the end of this year, Minter plans to pass the recovery baton to Joe Flynn, who used to work for her, both at VTrans and in the Irene Recovery Office. In January, he became Director of Vermont Emergency Management-a job he never imagined holding.
"And it shows that you really never know quite where this journey ends until it does," Flynn said.
Flynn came to state government from the private sector, as an executive at Pepsi-Cola Bottling. He has also served as South Hero’s Fire Chief and Deputy Sheriff for Grand Isle County. In 2009, when his Pepsico job was eliminated, he became Rail Director at VTrans. A few days after Irene hit, he left his family in South Hero to head up an incident command center in hard-hit Dummerston-and ended up staying there for nearly four months.
"We became a bit of a society, if you will," Flynn said. "We worked together early on for nearly twenty-four hours a day, but you finally find your motel room, and you were so wound up and adrenalin was flowing that you really don’t sleep, and the next thing you know it’s time to get back at it."
At the peak of the crisis, Flynn supervised and found food, shelter, and materials for almost 1000 workers, including road crews from New Hampshire and Maine, and several national guard units from other states.
Flynn says he’s amazed by the way local and state government turf battles have been set aside over the past year.
"It’s an oft-used term, but silo busting has absolutely occurred," Flynn said. "That’s not to say that there certainly aren’t places that we could do better but the agencies of state government are really working much, much closer together and I think in part because of tropical storm Irene."
VTrans Secretary Brian Searles agrees, and he gives credit to both Minter and Flynn for rising to an unprecedented occasion. Minter, Searles says, is a brilliant communicator.
"She developed immediately relationships with the press and other partners, like Google for instance, that resulted in Vermonters getting important information as quickly and accurately as possible," Searles said.
And Searles says Joe Flynn brings double assets to state government -from the private sector, the ability to see the "big picture," and from his law enforcement background, the courage to make quick decisions on the fly.
He says he’s sorry to lose him from VTrans, and eager to get Sue Minter back as full-time deputy secretary.