Plenary Luncheon: Session Summary

Posted on: June 14th, 2012 by Kate Humphrey

The Plenary Luncheon at the 2012 National Rural Transportation Conference featured two speakers on the topic of Transportation, Disaster Recovery, and Economic Vitality. Peter Gregory, NADO Second Vice President and Executive Director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, moderated the session. To preface the presentations, he spoke about how businesses rely on an efficient transportation network. In the northeast, much of this infrastructure is aging and in need of repair, and events like Hurricane Irene make the system even more difficult to navigate for businesses that need it to survive. Read a detailed summary of the presentations below or click here to watch the video and view the slides.

The first presenter was Jim Pratt, the Senior Vice President for Operations at Cabot Creamery. Gregory praised the company as a strong and well-known Vermont business with important employment and marketing partnerships with the state. Pratt provided an overview of Cabot’s business operations, then spoke about the importance of transportation infrastructure and the impact that Irene had on operations.

Cabot is owned by almost 1,300 dairy farmers in New England and New York, representing 18 percent of farms in the northeast market. It has won numerous awards for its products, which include cultured dairy projects and butter, but is best known for its core product, aged cheddar. After beginning in the northeast, Cabot extended its distribution down the coast, seeking customers familiar with the region and the brand. The company maintains relationships with stores such as Costco and Trader Joe’s, as well as other food service firms and national food distributors, to reach markets throughout the U.S. Cabot’s four manufacturing plants (two of which are in Vermont) process over two billion pounds of milk per year, with aged cheese making up a significant part of the business.

Pratt then explained Cabot’s transportation operations in more detail. To get its products to market, the company uses a combination of its own distribution system in New York State and New England and third party carriers in other parts of the country. A network of internal infrastructure supports the northeast territory, including direct store delivery routes that use smaller trucks to service “mom and pop” stores and long-haul deliveries to warehouses and distribution centers. In addition, a shuttle system moves goods between Cabot’s facilities, such as cheese being moved from temperature-controlled aging warehouses back to a packaging plant. Third party carriers assist with long haul and shuttle loads.

Given Cabot’s extensive use of transportation infrastructure throughout the northeast, damage caused by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 impacted normal distribution practices. Interstate highways run north and south along Vermont’s Green Mountains, but the east-west routes essential to commerce were the most damaged by the storm. Pratt said that most of the impact on Cabot was a result of “trying to get to the customers that we needed to get to,” which required detouring north or south to loop around and avoid the damaged roads. Some delivery loads were transferred to smaller trucks better able to pass difficult roads. Getting products to stores became a priority; despite the added hours and miles, “the job needed to get done.” Irene’s total financial impact on Cabot was $23,750, a figure that makes the company “one of the lucky ones.”

Gregory mentioned the importance of Cabot having a Business Continuity of Operations Plan in place and the need to be prepared for such unforeseen situations. Pratt called Cabot’s response a model of people rising to the occasion to do what they needed to do to take care of other people. Gregory again mentioned Cabot’s positive influence in Vermont, particularly its support of agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism even during a difficult time.

The second speaker was Sue Minter, Deputy Secretary at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the state’s Irene Recovery Officer, responsible for coordinating the state’s response to the storm. In his introduction, Gregory cited the close working relationship that VTrans maintains with Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), a model that is now making its way through Congress in the transportation bill reauthorization process. These partnerships “took on a whole new meaning” during the Irene recovery, as agencies and regions collaborated to restore Vermont’s road network.

Before discussing the damage from Irene itself, Minter explained unusually difficult weather throughout 2011, including record levels of snow and rain in the winter and spring. By early May, Lake Champlain was at historically high levels, and flash flooding in May further saturated the ground. Road workers emerged as the de facto emergency responders in many of these weather events, earning them the name “road heroes.”

Hurricane Irene arrived in Vermont on August 28. The storm impacted 223 of 251 towns and villages, claiming six lives and causing damage to the following:
• 3,500 homes and 500 mobile homes
• 629 historical and cultural sites
• 20,000 acres of farmland
• 220 businesses
• State facilities: Over 500 miles of highways, 34 bridges closed
• Town facilities: Over 2,000 road segments, 963 culverts, 277 bridges

Despite the devastation caused by the storm, Minter referred to the state’s response as “inspiring” and an “extraordinary experience,” witnessing people giving each other help and hope throughout the recovery effort. Minter also praised the government’s response as swift and effective. It was able to maintain essential functions even as 1,500 employees were relocated from the flooded state complex in Waterbury. The emergency operations center also flooded, and was relocated overnight to the new FEMA headquarters in Burlington. After declaring a disaster in every county, the government acted quickly. The immediate response included Red Cross shelters, swift water rescue teams, FEMA trailers, and National Guard deployment to 13 communities that were completely cut off without access.

Of all of the storm’s impacts, damage to infrastructure was the most severe and widespread. After receiving damage reports throughout the first night following the storm, Minter and the VTrans leadership team met the next morning. While assembling reports and beginning to map activity, Governor Peter Shumlin delivered his first decree to the agency: “do everything in our power to reconnect those 13 communities.” Minter emphasized the importance of having this clear mission from the beginning to guide the recovery.

Even with an unambiguous goal, once the leadership team understood the magnitude of the event, it realized that VTrans couldn’t function in its current structure. Minter’s colleagues approached her with concerns about meeting the demands of the task and prompted her to take quick action to restructure the response operation. Within 24 hours, VTrans established three regional command centers throughout the state. Seven hundred of the agency’s 1,300 staff were redeployed to these centers, some without training yet who committed themselves to the challenge. Minter called this an “incredible deployment of resources” that was aided by the “mission-driven spirit of the effort.”

The formation of regional centers wouldn’t have been possible without a clear structure of command and established priorities:
1. Restoring connections to and within the 13 communities.
2. Giving access to utility companies to restore power to 50,000 people. VTrans coordinated closely with other agencies, allowing 95 percent of power to be restored in four days.
3. Increasing mobility for those with emergency access only, such as those communities that could use ATVs but were unable to travel to work or medical appointments.
4. Establishing an east-west corridor after Irene severed all but one minor road. VTrans used economic and tourism analyses to establish priority routes and deploy resources appropriately.
5. Inspecting every bridge of concern.

Despite the considerable undertaking of restoring the transportation network, the process was a “challenge, not chaos,” thanks to the recovery team’s organization and coordination with other agencies. Minter summarized the reasons for a successful outcome: “It took incredible deployment of resources—strategically, it took priorities, but most of all the sacrifice that I mentioned and this incredible mission-driven spirit. But it also took partnerships and innovation—thinking on the ground, connecting in ways we never had before. We reached out. We knew instantly we couldn’t do this by ourselves.”

VTrans reached out to neighboring Maine and New Hampshire, who sent large volunteer teams across the border to assist. The private sector was also an important partner and worked to implement expedited contracting to mobilize and restore roads more quickly.

As Gregory mentioned, VTrans’ relationship with the state’s RPCs was crucial to the recovery, although it did not take effect immediately. Several days after the storm, the recovery team approached Minter, saying, “If you continue to require us to go to every single road in every single town, we will fail on our mission on the state system.” Minter spoke with Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott about the need to deploy the RPCs to establish an incident command system and take over as the link to the towns. The RPCs “delivered in terrific ways” because of their strong existing networks and regional perspective. One important element of RPCs’ work involved continuously mapping impacted assets to help tourists and those delivering goods know what roads were open at any given time.

In her role as Vermont’s Irene Recovery Officer, Minter has been “reaching out and developing partnerships like never before.” She leads the interagency Irene Recovery Coordination Team, which includes RPCs, to address all elements of the recovery (such as environmental, economic, and community), as well as efforts to become better prepared for future events. According to Minter, the RPCs are critical for looking forward and lead the way in emergency preparedness and hazard mitigation planning.

Overall, the Irene recovery is a “hallmark of what we have been able to accomplish” by working across jurisdictions and different government entities. In her short tenure as Deputy Secretary, Minter has already experienced four declared disasters, something she considers evidence of the need to prepare for a different future and a changing climate with more extreme weather events.

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