It’s been more than 18 months since Tropical Storm Irene. For most Vermonters, including many who experienced it firsthand, the storm is no longer a part of their lives and daily conversations.
But for those who lost houses, Irene is still very present.
It is present as they wait for answers from government agencies and as they calculate the family budget. And it’s a factor as they deal with the usual emotional ups and downs of life.
Periodically over the past 18 months, we’ve been checking in with Beth Frock and Jon Graham. The house the couple occupied with their two daughters was swept away when Irene hit Rochester.
The good news is the long wait for the money from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation buyout program is almost over. On the last day of February, the couple signed the formal agreement with FEMA.
The bad news is last Friday, the couple says their bank told them they’ll have to pay in full the remainder of their old mortgage, which means most of the FEMA buyout money will go to pay off their non-existent house, instead of to replace it.
The couple still talks about how their community rallied round to help them in the months after Irene, but paying the mortgage on a non-existent home and keeping up with living expenses has been difficult.
They lost their belongings in the flood and though they received $30,000 in FEMA disaster assistance right after Irene, there’s been no financial relief since then.
"We’ve applied for so many things that we’re told we’re not eligible for. It’s so frustrating," says Frock.
Graham says, "I don’t know of anybody affected by Irene able to get other things. I’m sure some people are. Our solution was just to work more. But that actually, our children were on Green Mountain Care, but now we make too much money.
Now the couple’s two daughters are uninsured.
To make ends meet, Jon has been working one, sometimes two jobs in addition to his full time job. Beth worked two jobs for a time but these days she has to focus on her Rochester clothing store.
If they have enough left over from the FEMA buyout after paying the bank, the couple may look for a new place to live.
Jon is willing to stay in the house in the village which they’ve been renting and have an opportunity to buy. Beth isn’t so sure.
"It would be good for me to just be able to move into an empty house and start all over again," she says.
"Even though that’s sort of what we did here, it was in a fog, it’s like forced residence because there was no choice about it, so I feel like I can’t make a rational or emotional decision about whether or not I even want to live her. Financially it may end up that this is the only place."
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, Jon followed the news and donated to a couple of local recovery groups to help with the clean-up.
"I wish I could have gone down there," he says. "I really felt like maybe I could turn my experience into something that would help."
Beth hasn’t followed the news about Hurricane Sandy, saying, "It upsets me too much. There are people on Staten Island, apparently who don’t have heat in their homes and are living in them. I just can’t think about that too much."
The emotional impact of Irene may be less evident day to day, but the couple says the loss they experienced has altered how they respond to life’s ups and downs.
"I think it makes you feel less confident and more vulnerable in ways that you never anticipated. That shapes how I look at a lot of things that I used to look at differently," says Graham.
"I would say it in a different way," Frock says. "My coping skills are much more fragile than they used to be. It’s getting better, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to completely go away. I’m not saying it’s not going to, but so far it hasn’t."
Frock says she fears that the financial and emotional difficulties that began 18 months ago will continue for the rest of their lives.
The passage of time doesn’t necessarily bring greater understanding or peace-of-mind. Graham says it’s difficult to stay philosophical in the face of the continued financial and emotional effects of Irene.
"I used to think I had the moral of the story a few months ago, and now it’s in question," Graham says.
What was the moral?
"Well, it was just a question of keep your balance and being able to juggle things and to view it as a process and that as long as you can keep things in focus the material aspects can be dealt with. But you get worn down."
As much as things stay the same for the couple, there are bright moments. Their oldest daughter recently started college and she’s doing very well.