A Helping Hand

Rutland Herald

One of the legends that grew up about the flood of 1927 had to do with the words of Gov. John Weeks. An Army captain, John Ferris, was one of the first people from the outside to make his way into Montpelier after the flood. He rode horseback over Smuggler's Notch and Mount Hunger and into Middlesex and Montpelier to tell the governor that the U.S. Army would be at his disposal. Ferris reported Weeks' famous response: "Captain, Vermont can take care of its own."

Ferris was not impressed. He said later, "That old Methodist preacher didn't know that the streets of Waterbury were littered with dead cattle and the railroad station was being used as a morgue."

Weeks' words have long been held up as an emblematic expression of Yankee self-reliance. But Weeks' subsequent actions are also worthy of note. Soon he was compelled to dispel rumors that the state of Vermont was ready to reject federal assistance. Thus, he sent a telegram to President Coolidge (who knew something about Yankee self-reliance), saying: "Our loss has been so great that we need all the assistance the government and the Red Cross can give."

In the 84 years since then, much has changed about the nation's response to disaster. As Sen. Bernie Sanders has said more than once, we are the United States, underscoring the word "united." One of the things that unites us is our commitment to help one another when disaster strikes an individual state or region. Over the years tax dollars from Vermont have gone to help in the recovery and reconstruction of numerous regions struck by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and fires. We do not grumble about it. When we pool our resources as united states, we become the United States.

Now Vermont is in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal disaster relief, partly because of the aggressive work of the state's three-man congressional delegation, who saw to it that Congress raised a cap on relief coming to Vermont.

It would be one thing if Vermonters had been lying back, waiting for someone else to rush to their assistance. But that was not the case. Communities have pushed themselves to the max to raise money for and to rush assistance to afflicted regions. Similarly, it would be surprising if people in Joplin, Mo., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., or any of scores of towns and regions clobbered by tornadoes and other disasters stood by and watched their neighbors struggle without lending a hand.

Disasters of great magnitude are too much for any individual or isolated region to deal with alone. It would be possible, of course, for Vermont to recover without outside assistance. But road repairs that might be completed in a year's time with sufficient disaster relief might take us 10 years if we were left on our own. Those would be 10 years of diminished prosperity and opportunity; they would be 10 years languishing, weaker as a state and nation than we would otherwise be.

The Shumlin administration has recognized that we are all stronger when we are willing to help one another out. Early on, Gov. Peter Shumlin used his own physical presence to rally the morale of beleaguered Vermonters, traveling throughout the state to hard-hit areas.

Now state officials are working to ease the financial burden to towns facing mountainous bills from road reconstruction and other vital projects. The flow of money from towns to the state and back is complex. Part of it involves payments by towns of property taxes to the state Education Fund, which is then divided up on an equalized basis and sent back to the towns.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce is allowing towns to push back the deadline on some of the payments owed to the state. It will allow towns to pay some bills while they await compensation coming to them from the federal government. 

The example in a news story last week was the town of Halifax in Windham County, which has an annual budget of $800,000 and a bill for reconstruction after Tropical Storm Irene of $7 million. The town was facing a payment of $150,000 to the state Education Fund on Dec. 1, but Pearce has allowed the town to wait. House Speaker Shap Smith says the Legislature will pass a bill in the coming session establishing that the treasurer has the legal authority to push back the Education Fund deadline.

No doubt, there will be challenges ahead for which flexibility of this sort will be useful. The guiding star for this kind of administrative improvisation must be the welfare of Vermont and Vermonters. So far the flexibility exhibited by Pearce and the Shumlin administration has served the state well.