BARRE, Vt. — It’s been two weeks now that displaced residents from a flooded trailer park have been staying in an American Red Cross shelter at the Barre Auditorium, and it’s not known when the shelter will be able to close up shop.
That’ s just one of the unusual expenses the disaster relief agency’s regional office serving Vermont and part of New Hampshire has had to absorb this spring, making it one of many Red Cross chapters around the country stretched thin by a string of weather-related emergencies.
Doug Bishop, director of community partnerships and education with the organization’s office in Burlington, said in an interview Thursday that a tough 2011 began with an unusually high number of house fires during the winter. The Red Cross routinely helps people displaced by such events with temporary housing, food, clothing and other basics, as well as with getting them in touch with ot her aid agencies.
But as winter turned to spring, things just got worse, Bishop said. The Brooks House, a large apartment block in Brattleboro, burned in mid-April, leaving the Red Cross scrambling to provide assistance to people who lived there.
On April 26, heavy rains triggered flash floods in Jeffersonville and Cambridge, further tapping the relief agency’s resources. Then the waters of Lake Champlain began rising to record levels — they’re still above flood stage — displacing residents of low-lying areas from Burlington to Swanton. And on May 26, several central Vermont communities including Montpelier, Berlin and Plainfield, but especially Barre, were flooded when up to 5 inches of rain fell on the region.
In Brattleboro, the Red Cross kept a shelter open for about a week, working to find new places to live for about 70 people burned out of their homes. In Cambridge and Jeffersonville, the agency provided food while living space was donated by the Smuggler’s Notch ski resort, Bishop said.
The disasters were unlike anything faced by the American Red Cross of Vermont and the New Hampshire Valley in at least five years, Bishop said. “Suddenly we were faced with three within about six weeks.”
Just responding to the winter fires, the Red Cross had spent its entire $145,000 budget for direct assistance with personal expenses like food and clothing by the end of March — three months short of the close of its fiscal year June 30, Bishop said. That has meant it has had to rely for assistance on the national American Red Cross parent organization.
But with tornados devastating parts of Missouri and Alabama, flooding along the Mississippi and wildfires hitting Arizona, the national group is hard pressed as well.
If the Vermont-New Hampshire Valley chapter wants to reach outside its territory for help, “who are we going to turn to?” Bishop asked. “Our neighbors in Joplin, Missouri? Our neighbors who got hit by the forest fires in Arizona?”
At the Barre Auditorium, cots were set in bunches on the floor of the gym where Vermont’s annual high school basketball championship tournaments are held. Red Cross shelter manager Steve Pernicka said the 25 people still staying there were down from more than 200 two weeks earlier. Many of those being housed at night were out during the day Thursday looking for apartments or jobs, Pernic ka said.
“Shelter life isn’t the greatest place in the world,” he said. “There’s not a lot of privacy.”
Red Cross officials said they were grateful to area residents for responding to a fundraising drive spearheaded by two Burlington television stations on Wednesday night. But they added that more is needed.
With warnings from climate scientists that years or decades of severe weather may be on the way, Bishop said the Red Cross would do its best to respond to whatever comes.
“We don’t know if this is the new norm. It’s hard to gauge,” he said. “But obviously, we’ve got to be able to continue to respond.”