Just over a week after Tropical Storm Irene unfurled her fury on parts of Vermont, flooding towns up and down this long spit of a state and taking out roads and historic covered bridges, the battered region is under a flash flood watch today and tomorrow as heavy rains move through the area.
My 84-year-old mother lives in Wilmington, a small town that was destroyed by the floodwaters. Wilmington sits just over the Massachusetts border, nestled between Bennington and Brattleboro, the gateway to route 100 and ski country. Mount Snow is about a 15 minute drive up the now cratered road.
Even a week later, my mother still can’t travel the length of route 9, the state’s east-west artery, and the road that links Wilmington to Bennington’s and Brattleboro’s services. My mother had to cancel a doctor’s appointment at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital the other day; the route to get there now so circuitous, her usual 30 minute drive would have have taken a good hour and a half — and that barring any unforeseen stoppages.
Trucks have been unable to traverse route 9 to deliver food to the local supermarket, but a couple finally made it up another way from Massachusetts for the first time Thursday, and the repair crews hard at work fixing the roads and bridges now travel hours out of their way hauling materials back and forth in an attempt to make the roads passable again.
Luckily my mom, and her home — an 180-year-old farmhouse on a rural road, up a hill — weathered the storm just fine — no damage to either of them. And her pantry is well stocked. But that doesn’t mean she’s not impacted. All Vermonters are impacted in some way as she says.
“For me, itís the psychological impact. I am personally, not physically affected. Itís the sadness to see this. The incredulity of nature doing its work,” she told me.
Self-sustaining lot that Vermonters are, they’re banding together, town by town, exchanging information, readily volunteering to help those in need, and living up to their strong, stubborn reputation as survivors who refuse to let their feathers get ruffled — even in the worst of storms.
I asked my mom what it’s like to be there now, and what it was like a week ago Sunday when Irene hit with a vengeance.
My mom didn’t want to sit out Irene by herself. She has been through many a storm alone — including one last winter that left her without power for three days, and a road as slick as an ice skating rink. As fiercely independent as anyone in her adopted state — no matter that she’s turning 85 soon, she still drives her stick shift Subaru, drags in wood for her fireplace, and rolls her eyes when her grandchildren complain of the cold in sub-zero weather — simply telling them to add an extra layer of clothing or a scarf.
But with the threat of a fierce storm on the horizon, my mother wanted to be in the company of friends — a notion I of course seconded as my brother and I each live hundreds of miles away. So she drove down to stay with her friend Tina who lives in town, thinking that would be the safest place to be.
“When we heard the reports, what we expected were devastating winds, but no one thought there would be floods. I thought ‘I donít want to be alone on the house with howling winds.’ All we were afraid of were power outages and power lines in trees and downed trees. But no one ever really talked about floods. No one,” she recalled.
But that was before the storm stalled over Vermont and brought torrential rains to already rain-soaked landscape, causing ruinous flooding.
“At about 11 am Sunday we were sitting in Tina’s house watching the water rise on the basketball court across the street. It was rising very steadily and was creeping up to the top of the basketball hoops,” my mom told me. Tina went down to her basement where she found herself up to her breastbone in water. People walking by, including State Representative Ann Manwaring, suggested residents evacuate. They helped Tina secure her kayak, then Tina turned off her electricity and propane, and Tina and my mom left for another friend’s house nearby but up on higher ground. That was at about 12:30 pm.
Take a look at this video to see the flooding that followed soon after:
The storm stopped at about 6 pm, but my mother didn’t venture out until the next day. She couldn’t get home anyway. The roads had become impassable.
“We more or less knew it was bad, but we didnít know how bad until we went to see it downtown,” she told me.
“It looked like a war zone. Everything was destroyed and caked with mud. Gaping holes in store windows. The National Guard standing at corners and not letting people through. People milling about looking at this destruction that had taken place in no time at all. There were huge craters all over. Here it is green Vermont and everything is brown with silt. Nobody believed this could happen the way it did.”
Wilmington is now boarded up, shops and restaurants are windowless, glass shattered by the force of the water, Ann Coleman’s art gallery totally detached and floated down Main Street, the contents of Bartleby’s Books now reduced to pulp.
My mother described this poignant scene: “There was a knitting shop that had recently opened, and there were skeins of wool floating all over town. Somebody started to collect the skeins and now there is a pyramid of wool in front of the library.”
My mom was able to get back home Monday. She went to a town meeting the other day where she and the people in her community exchanged information and officials distributed maps showing which roads are open. More meetings are in the works. On a day-to-day basis, she relies on a combination of word of mouth and bulletins from the state police to figure out how to get from point A to point B.
I asked my mom how her community feels today. “We shall overcome is the feeling. Weíre tough Vermonters Ė and weíre going to rebuild. Of course in times like this the unity of the town is outstanding,” she replied.
Teams of volunteers are downtown every day, picking up debris, and helping residents reclaim their homes and possessions. A crew showed up to help Tina sweep out her basement and reattach her propane tank that had floated away.
From the Wilmington Fire Department, to the National Guard, to the volunteers, people are scrambling to make repairs — now wearing face masks to shield from dust particles or worse. They’ve also just begun to wear protective booties over their shoes as they work.
“Everybody is very worried about deadly mold. People are really concerned about mold spreading,” my mom explained.
Today’s latest flash flood threat pushes back repair work even closer to cold season. Fall foliage — high tourist season when Vermont’s trees are ablaze in color and “leaf peepers” come from far and near to breathe in the scenery — is just around the corner, and Mount Snow, like many Vermont ski resorts, traditionally aims to open for Thanksgiving.
“Itís a race against the clock. People are going to be out of work. The whole economic infrastructure is destroyed. What about fall foliage? What about the ski season?” my mother questioned. “Itís an economic disaster and a natural disaster,” she said.
“Everybody is just trying to cobble together what they can,” my mother reflected, discussing the fate of Jerry’s Deck, one of our favorite restaurants. We had lunch there with my son in July, and until Sunday, it had perched over the river just past the one stoplight in town on route 100.
“Thereís an ad in the paper from Jerryís Deck that says ‘Weíll be back for Christmas!’” my mom told me.
I hope so.
Photo credit: Flood damage in Brattleboro, VT following Tropical Storm Irene by calebjc via Flickr