Irene, Part Five

January 10th, 2012

A colleague standing next to me said, “I come from Mississippi.  If we moved out every time something got flooded…”  She didn’t get to finish her sentence because at that moment a car drove by, honking to express support for the couple hundred of us standing in front of the Waterbury State Office Complex, and we whooped and hollered in return, waving our “BRING US ALL BACK” signs.

The first couple of months of displacement were hard.  I don’t mean to compare our plight with that of people who lost their homes or businesses to the floods, but the fact remains that the lives of the state employees who had been based in Waterbury were profoundly disrupted.  The familiar spaces and procedures in which we had spent the majority of our waking hours most days were gone, swept away, finished.  In their place were makeshifts and make-dos.  One doesn’t realize how much our semi-conscious routines smooth the way through life, until they are gone.  Step out the door (which door?) to the bathroom (which way?) and then remember the way back.  Where’s the copy paper?  What are the six new passwords I need to know to work my computer?    Multiply these questions by the number of minutes in an eight hour day.  It’s exhausting.  On top of that, the work load stays the same, but one’s efficiency is shot to hell.  Tasks which would take a couple of hours… well, I remember the first time I tried to write a letter and get it printed, it took me two days, and that was not for lack of trying.  Meanwhile, tasks stacked up.  It would be easy to say, “So adjust.  Get over it,” but adjustment is not all that easy even when it is voluntary; and there was so much to adjust to; and we kept on being reminded, this was all temporary – the prospect of further change, welcome or unwelcome, loomed in the imminent but indeterminate future.

My work unit of attorneys and administrative assistants was assigned temporarily to Montpelier.  At first I was located in a hastily converted printer closet.  I felt lucky because unlike others I had a space to myself, once we got the noisy printer out.  After a couple of weeks I was moved up the stairs to share a small conference room with a colleague.  We got along fine; that was okay, sort of.  A couple of days after that, some guys from the telephone company came by to see whether lines could be installed for us.  Despite which, I never got a phone during the months I was there.  That was okay, sort of; I used my cell phone.

Yes, it was all okay, sort of, and the people in Montpelier among whom we had landed, graciously moved aside to make room for us, and bent over backwards to provide us with the tools we needed, and were generally welcoming and kind.  And yet, and yet.  There was the feeling, as a displaced colleague of mine put it, that “nothing is right.”  There was a constant emotional undertow of frustration, anger and annoyance.  It seized on small things and added them up.  One colleague was really pissed at a memo discouraging staff from eating at their desks and reminding us what office attire was considered appropriate here in buttoned-down Montpelier, far from Waterbury’s dissolute laxity, where, lacking air conditioning, summers had seen us in shorts and sandals.  Now we were breathing Montpelier’s stale, processed air in ties and prim business suits.  Another colleague couldn’t stand her roommate.  Another, stuck in a spare space several floors away from everybody else, felt isolated and lonely. Another, shuffled from room to room to room as permanent residents came and went, felt disrespected.  Extra commuting time rankled some.  I found grating the need to swipe a security badge every time I passed through a door, the stricter dress code, the huge number of parking spaces reserved for people like Assistant Deputy Under Secretaries, so important they didn’t seem to need to come to work and so their spaces stood vacant all day as ordinary schmos like me drove by.  For everybody, there was some constant reminder of what had been lost.  We all hated Montpelier; not so much for its own sake, but for what had been taken from us.

Meanwhile, the movers and shakers were moving and shaking.  Although the heat and  lights were back on in Waterbury, and the plumbing was working, and the carpets were all being vacuumed regularly, and the air was breathable, and, in short, the buildings by all appearances had been restored to habitability, the time for us to move back in kept on receding.  A couple months.  Six months.  A couple years.  Maybe never.  Maybe we’ll tear the whole thing down and rebuild it.  Maybe we’ll sell it.  (Who would pay good money for a floodable hundred year old mental hospital wasn’t explained.)  Maybe we’ll move you to Barre as part of a downtown revitalization project.  Despite all the talk we heard from the governor and others right after Irene about how Vermonters pitch in and help each other when they’re down, Barre is lobbying hard to take advantage of Waterbury’s misfortune, apparently with some success, as the governor today announced plans to relocate a good chunk of the former Waterbury workforce there, smack downtown in a yet-to-be-built multiple use “City Place” replete with grocery stores, apartments and floodproofing.  Yeah, floodproofing.  Barre’s a flood plain, too.  If you’re ever in Barre and you get hit by a car, and you’re lying in the street and you see the mayor come running over, watch out.  He’s not going to give you CPR.  He’s after your wallet.

Very early on, the administration invited proposals from developers and builders for what to do with the Waterbury complex, contributing to the feeling that, as usual after a disaster, the carrion eaters would be well taken care of even if nobody else was.  There was talk of turning it into a mixed use space of condos and retail facilities, or maybe a college.  There was no explanation as to why, if the site has suddenly become so flood prone as to be unusable for state offices, it’s a good place for small businesses and educational institutions and people to live.  Or why, if being on a flood plain is the problem, it would be desirable to move to Barre or Montpelier, flood plains themselves with far worse histories than Waterbury.  Or why the existing structures could not be rehabbed and protected, perhaps by a short levee.  Or why the Department of Public Safety is back in business in its corner of the complex, whereas buildings in hardly worse condition are left empty.  The governor repeatedly said he was considering all options and would make the best decision for all Vermonters.  What credible options there are, other than moving back to Waterbury what would be left over from Barre’s larceny, was not obvious; and neither is it obvious how it might be good for Vermont to whisk away an entire town’s economic raison d’etre, or to let the town wither while government dithers, or to plunk a couple of hundred people down in a big box office building in the middle of a dying downtown and hope their lunch money revitalizes the place, while the other town that had grown vibrant with their presence struggles to get by with less.  An Advisory Committee on the issue was announced, constituted of representatives of many interests but completely lacking any representation for the one constituency whose lives are most directly impacted – former Waterbury workers.   I find myself thinking more and more of that line from Stan Rogers’ great song, The Mary Ellen Carter, about “smiling bastards lying to you every where you go.”

Which brings us back to the topic of the opening paragraph.  Last Saturday a few hundred displaced state workers rallied in Waterbury, under the banner “(re)Occupy Waterbury,” demanding to be brought back.  It was a good-natured, high-spirited crowd.  It was the first such event, and I hope it will not be the last.  Stan Rogers may be apropos here, in more ways than one.  The refrain to The Mary Ellen Carter goes, “Rise again.”  Bless you, Waterbury.  We’ll be back.


Update, 1/12/12:  Governor Shumlin stated in his budget speech today that returning state workers to Waterbury is his first choice, but it is increasingly clear from the speech and other statements emanating from the administration that (a) he doesn’t mean to return more than about two-thirds of the workers who were there before Irene, and (b) it’s not gong to happen any time soon, and (c) it may not happen at all, depending on the cost of providing what he deems to be suitably flood-resistant accommodations, based on forthcoming recommendations from a committee of builders and architects.  It’s the kind of good news that doesn’t look so good, when you look at it closely.  Basically, nothing has changed.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 at 11:29 pm and is filed under Current events, Irene, Places. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Irene, Part Five”

  1. Upton O. Goode Says:

    I’m glad I don’t have your job!

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