The 2011 tropical storm, while calamitous, left lasting positive legacies
Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Vermont on August 28, 2011, was one of the costliest storms on record in the Northeast. It dumped 11 inches of rain on the Upper Valley, flooding nearly every river and stream and causing $733 million in damage. Road washouts throughout the state left nearly a dozen rural towns cut off, requiring air lifts of necessities in the days following.
The American Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at Hartford High School—a facility unable to handle food, clothing, or supplies donated by the public. “They called to see if the Haven would be willing to accept donations,” recalls then-Executive Director Sara Kobylenski, who had experience with natural disaster response. “I assembled the senior staff and explained what this would mean and how much work it would entail. I asked, ‘Are we in it or not? Because if we’re in it, we’re in it for two years.’” The staff was game, and donations started pouring in.
The Haven’s doors stayed open for 34 days straight. “We used every inch of space to accept donations of household goods,” Sara continues. That first required renting trailers for the parking lot and then two warehouses to process and store donated items. Fortunately, because the Haven also ended up doing local case management for flood victims, “nothing went to waste. Every item donated was productively used to help people once they got set up in housing.”
“We also decided that this needed to be a community response, the Haven alone couldn’t handle it,” she explains. Sara was instrumental in assembling ten area human service agencies, which eventually became the corpus of Upper Valley Strong, a coalition to coordinate integrated response. Through Upper Valley Strong, the Haven also became the clearinghouse for accepting and acknowledging monetary donations, a role that raised community awareness.
“Irene put the Haven on the map, for better or for worse” says Sara. “I say we were ‘discovered.’” Volunteers were another important byproduct of Irene. “After the household goods stopped coming, the volunteers started. The senior corps of today’s Haven’s volunteers are those who came when Irene hit and have never left.” Irene’s final legacy, perhaps the one most significant for the region, is Upper Valley Strong. “Through UVS, we developed an action framework that remains to this day,” Sara concludes. “In fact, it was reconvened for COVID-19 and has been a key asset to coordinating and building our community response. The Haven leadership team was front and center at UVS throughout the pandemic. In that way, you could say that Irene built the Haven for strength in the future.”