It began as a routine Sunday morning. Hurricane Irene had been weakened to “Tropical Storm” Irene the night before, so we didn’t think anything of the steady rain pattering our roof as my wife fixed coffee and I fed our infant daughter mashed pears. I was excited to have a gray, rainy day as an excuse to lie around and catch up on pre-season football news.
I drained my second cup of coffee while issuing smart-ass remarks to TV news reporters as they admitted overestimating Irene’s impact on New York City.
“I can’t believe they shut down the entire city for this,” smirked my wife. “Yeah, Jim Cantore is a crock,” I quipped.
As CBS Morning News was starting, I heard thunder. Unlike thunder, though, the ground was shaking with each rumble. “What the...?” I muttered to myself. I walked out the front door to see what I could see. What I saw didn’t necessarily frighten me, but it did cause me to stare in disbelief for a few moments. The Rock River, a normally placid brook across the road from our house, where we bring our daughter for afternoon dips, was a swiftly moving mass of chocolate-brown water. I threw on a jacket and walked a few hundred feet up to the Parish Hill bridge, pulling out my cell phone to record the furious torrent below me. The rumble I’d heard? There were boulders crashing into each other deep below the swirling surface, the river tossing them like pebbles.
"Entire trees -- roots, leaves and all -- were floating by. I was starting to regret making fun of all those weather reporters. Even more, I was regretting my decision to refuse flood insurance from the mortgage company."
Our neighbors from across the road pulled into the driveway next door. “That’s weird,” I thought. I knocked on the door to see what was up. The river had reached their house, the neighbors across the road said. It happened in a matter of minutes. They were coming to higher ground. By this time, entire trees -- roots, leaves and all -- were floating by. I was starting to regret making fun of all those weather reporters. Even more, I was regretting my decision to refuse flood insurance from the mortgage company.
“Pack some bags,” I directed my wife, trying to maintain calm in my voice.
“Just pack clothes and a laptop,” I interrupted.
We evacuated as the Rock River crested Dover Road. We made it safely into Brattleboro. For the next three hours, the river raged and flailed and clawed at its banks, sweeping away houses and carrying huge chunks of road down to the Connecticut River. It devoured vehicles, scarred mountainsides and brought utility poles crashing down. It spared some homes and swallowed up others. As darkness fell, the water receded, and the photos of the damage began to surface online. I slept little that night, wondering how I was going to shelter my family if I no longer had a home.
We returned 24 hours after we left, the sun now shining and the birds chirping. We crossed the bridge where I had stood with my cell phone a day earlier. At the other side, we climbed a ladder to get back to road-level; the bridge’s foundation had given way, dropping it 6 feet on one side. Our house was still standing, but the river had carved away the earth in front of it, taking the road with it. Miraculously, the section of carved earth stopped about 20 feet from our front door. A neighbor just down the road was not so lucky. The Rock River was now gently flowing where his house once stood. The bottom floor of his house disintegrated, but the top floor was eerily intact, 300 yards away.
The story was the same all over Vermont. Hundred-yard long, 15-foot deep chasms had bitten into roadways from Waterbury to Bennington, Brattleboro to Rutland. At Okemo mountain, access roads washed away and the marketing offices were flooded. A section of foundation at Killington mountain’s base lodge succumbed to rushing water, causing the Superstar Pub to dislodge from its host building. In Wilmington, a crossroads town 15 minutes south of Mount Snow, a woman was swept away in rising waters and later found dead along the shores of the Deerfield river. She was a housekeeper at Mount Snow, here from Macedonia on a work program.
"I spent the afternoon walking around with a camera, feeling like a protagonist in a Cormac McCarthy novel."
Some small towns found themselves completely cut off from the rest of the world when the sun rose Monday morning, August 29. Power and phone lines were severed (cell signals were mostly nonexistent in these small mountain towns even before the storm). Vehicles could not leave or enter. The only way to check on neighbors in some remote locations was to hike on foot, bushwacking through underbrush to get around washed-out sections of road.
I spent the afternoon walking around with a camera, feeling like a protagonist in a Cormac McCarthy novel. I was documenting the destruction for a Facebook page I’d already planned to create to help the community stay informed and updated in the chaotic days that surely lay ahead. I expected to find crying children and men with their head in their hands, to come upon distraught homeowners dumbfounded and heartbroken. But I found nothing like that.
Instead of forlorn individuals crying on their doorstep, I found next-door neighbors hugging each other and laughing. There were no weeping children, but there were friendly folks helping each other pump out flooded basements. That evening, my next-door neighbor invited everyone in the neighborhood to a “clean out your freezer” barbeque, where smiles outnumbered frowns 1,000 to 1. State Senator Peter Galbraith even showed up, assuring us that Vermont would rebound.
“That’s what Vermonters do,” says Bonnie MacPherson, director of public relations at Okemo Mountain Resort. “They are resilient in the face of adversity.”
With her offices flooded, lifts damaged, and access roads washed away, MacPherson immediately started to look for ways to help the community at large. She helped organize and run “Vermont Will Rise Again”, a benefit concert at Jackson Gore that was free to all, but accepted donations that would go directly to valley residents affected by Irene’s floods.
The softer side of Vermonters was bursting forth all across the state. National media couldn’t help but cover the “neighbor helping neighbor” angle of the story, as that was all Green Mountain Staters seemed to answer when asked, “What’s it like in Vermont right now?”
But as the initial shock of the destruction wears off, the tough side of Vermont is peeking through as well. “If the resort had snow, we would be open with the K-1 Lodge providing all normal skier services, minus one bar,” says Sarah Thorson, communications manager at Killington Resort, assuring us that, even though a wing of the base lodge is out of commission, it’s not going to stop them from providing skiers and riders with the full Killington experience. “We still plan to be one of the first resorts to open on the East Coast.”
"All told, Vermont’s ski resorts are in surprisingly great shape, considering the destruction wrought on low-lying hamlets across the state."
All told, Vermont’s ski resorts are in surprisingly great shape, considering the destruction wrought on low-lying hamlets across the state. Stratton Mountain posted a photo of blooming daisies and lush, green trails on its website two days after the flooding, telling the world, “we’re open for business.” Stowe posted a blog titled “Come in! We’re open!”, noting that the “roads are clear, attractions are open and the first hints of color are painting the trees.”
It’s one week after the great flood of 2011, and my wife and I are amazed to have electricity restored to our home, even though the utility pole across from our house is lying on its side, partially submerged in water and surrounded by chunks of asphalt. Roads are quickly being rebuilt and cut-off towns are now reconnected to the road system.
Yesterday I rode my bike out to a section of town still inaccessible by vehicle to check in on residents and document the rebuilding process for the town’s Facebook page. I came across a utility worker leaning against his bucket truck as he paused for lunch. I knew I couldn’t hug this burly, 6-foot-plus man. So I shook his hand and, looking straight into his eyes, said “Thank you.”
We chatted for a few minutes, saying we’d never seen anything like this and probably never will again.
“So where are you from?”, I inquired. Utility crews from all over the country are here in Vermont to help restore power and communication, so I expected him to answer with some far off state.
“Right up the road there,” he pointed.
“Oh, we’re neighbors,” I said. “I’m Luke.”
“I’m John. Good to meet ya.”
-Luke Stafford is a writer and business owner from South Newfane, VT. He lives with his wife, daughter and pooch in an old house on the Rock River, which now has beachfront property.