- Photograph by Gordon Miller
Tropical Storm Irene reached Vermont on the afternoon of August 28, 2011. In less than a day, the state’s most devastating natural disaster since the Great Flood of 1927 cut off entire towns, destroyed homes, and damaged roads and bridges, leaving Vermonters to pick up the pieces.
The task of coordinating the largest emergency “road recovery” in the state’s history fell largely to Sue Minter ’83, then Vermont’s deputy secretary of transportation. The department quickly created three “incident command centers” to coordinate the recovery and partnered with Google Maps to provide real-time information on which roads were closed. “It was a challenge to see so many people in need and to know that we could never act quickly enough,” says Minter. “It became hard to sleep.” Yet by late December, the last of 500 miles of damaged state road had been reopened and dozens of bridges replaced with temporary structures. Many roads were open in time for foliage season—critical for the state’s economy.
Minter’s interest in public service has deep roots. At Harvard, she studied sociology and later received a master’s degree in urban planning at MIT. She credits her education with giving her a broad and diverse perspective from which to effect social change. “Everything people believe is essentially an accumulation of their experience and education,” she says. “While you can see something as very black and white if you look at it only through one lens, I think the job of someone who is a legislator and a policymaker is to understand the whole.”
Environmental consulting work with the Conservation Law Foundation took Minter to Vermont in 1991. In 2003, when a neighbor retired from the state legislature, Minter decided to run for the seat. “I’d reached a time in my life when I felt I needed to do more to support my community and engage in government more directly,” she says. She won, and served for several years as a member of the Vermont House’s transportation and appropriations committees. In 2009, she received a Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership from the Aspen Institute, recognizing her promise as a young political leader. After winning a fourth term in office, she was named to the post of deputy secretary of transportation in incoming governor Peter Shumlin’s administration in January 2011.
That year, the state experienced several extreme weather events before Irene made landfall: record snowfall in February, heavy rains in April, and flash flooding in May. As Vermont recovers from these disasters, it aims to build back stronger. “While we’re responding to needs,” she explains, “we’re recovering in a way that thinks proactively about what a future might look like with a changing climate, that anticipates more frequent and more intensive storms.”
In January 2012, Minter entered a new post as Vermont’s Irene Recovery Officer. As deputy secretary, she had the concrete task of rebuilding roads. “Now,” she says, “I’m going into the world of people.” In this role, she takes a broader approach to the state’s recovery—fundraising, developing public-private partnerships, relocating displaced Vermonters, and assisting businesses hit hard by the economic disruption. “It’s expanded my understanding of the impact and the work we still have to do,” she says. “It’s quite daunting, but I never met a challenge I wasn’t up for.”