Wed, Aug 28, 2013 06:43 PM
Chances are you will know some of the people in the book;
perhaps you are even in the book!
I live on a mountain 2,230 feet above sea level along the spine of
the Green Mountains. To get anywhere we descend about 430 vertical
feet and there are ditches along the gravel road that serve to
drain water when it rains and preserve the road from washouts. Our
driveway is similarly crowned with ditches on the sides. I don't
recall ever seeing water run down them in 35 plus years of driving
the CCC Road in either direction.
That changed in 2011.
On August 28, a Sunday, we had rain and some wind. We lost power
for a while, not even a whole day as I recall. And to be honest, I
had no idea that a lady named Irene had done her worst 'til the
next beautiful, blue-sky day when we walked down the 1.5 miles to
Pierce's Store in North Shrewsbury.
Our driveway had a few washouts - nothing horrendous. But the CCC
Road was another story. The water overran the ditches as the
culverts clogged with debris so one lane or more of the road was
gone and toward the bottom, not even one lane existed.
A young neighbor was raking and placing rocks to make two tire
paths so we could maybe drive out.
Further below, there was severe damage and a stream had taken out
a bridge to a home and the adjacent road was gone and their car was
nose down in the water.
From a large gathering of neighbors, we learned about the
extensive damage in town. It was unfathomable.
So by now, we are all familiar with the loss of lives and
property. Like me, you might still be shocked to have lost someone
you knew to water and sometimes wonder if it were all just a bad
Or you might be pondering if this was one of those 50- or even
100-year freaks of nature?
We're used to snowstorms and two-or-more-day power outages. And
some of us know about the 1927 and 1938 floods and even 1973 and
1976 when rains did damage to places like ski areas and undermined
But rains that wash out main highways and byways? That isolate 13
towns? Or take the lives of four people?
Rain that takes away homes? Or turns living into a
To help you get a sense of how that can happen, I strongly
recommend reading the just published Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene,
Vermont's Flash Floods, and How One Small State Saved Itself.
Written by Rutlander Peggy Shinn, this is not just "another flood
book." It is a riveting account that reads like a 'who-dun-it' even
though we supposedly know what happened.
And therein lies the strength of this book. It is structured in
such a way that you learn facts about water and nature - at times
disconcerting and scary - and then the real life stories of people
who experienced the full force of nature in a manner that we never
It is a story that is at once horrifying in its devastation and
yet redeeming in its look at the ability of people to carry on and
to help others. It shows nature at her worst and the human spirit
at its best.
I read every word. I knew almost half the people mentioned and
even those whom I had never met I came to feel "I knew them." And
there were real heroes, lots of them.
That alone made the story resonate, but it was the writing that
made me read on. This is a well-written account that contains an
amazing amount of research into history as well as into the lives
of people and towns affected by Irene.
Mountain Times readers will be especially interested in the
accounts of how the people in Pittsfield, Killington, and Rutland
rose to the occasion. In fact, it was their stories that first
struck the author and motivated her to write; this is her first
Seeking to help her sister cover the Irene story for the Wall
Street Journal when its reporter couldn't get into Vermont at
first, Peggy Shinn rode her mountain bike to Pittsfield on the
Wednesday after the storm (when her young daughter had returned to
school). Although Route 4 was gone in Mendon, she had found out
about the Woodchip Highway, from fellow cyclist Tom Horrocks and
was able to make her way to Killington and Pittsfield. There, she
heard and saw firsthand the real meaning of the flood - human
ingenuity and caring that went into rescue and recovery. It was on
her ride back down the mountain that she realized that their
stories needed to be told, she said.
So she spent a year researching Irene and interviewing Vermonters,
not just locally but in Wilmington, (which "experienced the
steepest financial losses: $13 million") Jamaica, and South
Royalton as well as the aforementioned Rutland, Killington, and
Pittsfield areas. She contacted various agencies and she
Chances are you will know some of the people in the book; perhaps
you are even in the book! No doubt you will benefit from learning
how folks survived the devastation and helped one another in true
Because Deluge is a collective story told through the eyes of a
few - no one book or person could ever gather the thousands of
stories from Irene - a website www.vermontflood.com was set up for
others to share their Irene stories.
Insights from Deluge
One of the many insights I gained as to why a little rain can do
so much damage came from Shinn's explanation of just how rain and
water operate. After providing much historical information on
Vermont's history of floods, Shinn writes in Chapter 4, All Hell
"As Irene churned northward, weather forecasters used the term
"flash flood" to warn of possible destruction in New England. But
flash flooding is difficult for Easterners to comprehend. It's most
often associated with the arid West, where monsoon rains in the
summer can suddenly fill dry washes.
Then Irene blanketed Vermont's already soaked landscape with five
to eight inches of rain, and the state had a quick and painful
lesson in flood physics. Unlike rain or runoff hitting the flatter
Plain States, Vermont's mountainous topography funneled the
prodigious amounts of rainfall into steep mountain valleys. And
this funneling effect led to extensive fluvial erosion along the
mountain stream banks - which turned the water into roiling flumes
of liquid brown earth, trees, and rock, stirred into terrifying
Class V and VI rapids as they poured through steep valleys… it's
common sense that the velocity of water in a stream will increase
as the slope increases. Water is heavy … So when more and more
rainwater is added to a swift stream that is confined in a narrow
valley, the sheer force of the rising flow can move large trees,
entire houses, vehicles large and small, and even huge boulders -
making the streams as much debris flows as conduits of water."
And therein I finally understood why the CCC Road on the Plymouth
side was gone where water had poured down the mountainsides and why
on the Shrewsbury side, where no streams had existed, the water had
suddenly torn up the road and moved it downhill and where a brook
had babbled, a car lay in a new river.
From Chapter 11, Vermont was Lucky
"Pittsfield became the poster child for how a town can
successfully handle a crisis. Part of the town's ability to cope so
well was simply its geography… a compact village with a downtown
that serves as a hub for the community."
And Angelique Lee of Pittsfield was quoted as saying: "It was like
the world's best committee. No one ever questioned what we were
doing. You just did it. You had a huge sense of
"Before I was a little naïve to think that we could build stuff
that Mother Nature can't rip out," [Doug] Casella said. "After
seeing what I saw, I will definitely say that there's nothing we
can build that Mother Nature can't tear out if she wants to."
From Chapter 12,
The Human Toll
"Waiting for months to hear from FEMA, those who were most
affected by Irene were left in limbo and in debt - a homeless
purgatory in which they could not see more than a day or two ahead.
Nor could they look back. For nothing remained and the nightmare
Meet the Author
Shinn's background helps to explain why this is an unusually
enlightening book as well as a good read. Shinn was raised in
Lyndon Center, Vt. She has a BA in geology from Amherst College and
a MS in environmental science and engineering from the Colorado
School of Mines.
She's been a freelance writer since 1993 and is an avid skier and
Her education helps to explain her understanding of topography,
such as when she observes:
"Short of tunneling through the mountains, or switch-backing up
and over them, Vermont roads simply have to follow river valleys.
Fluvial erosion caused by flashing flooding is part of the geologic
cycle - a mechanism for turning mountains into plains."
When asked, "Based your research and what you learned, do you have
an educated guess or gut feeling about whether we will see another
Irene or if it is a once in a 50- or 100-year event," Shinn didn't
hesitate to say, "This will happen again… within the next ten
years," siting climate change as part of her reasoning.
She is also hopeful that the many questions raised by the storm,
rescue, and recovery work will lead to prevention and mitigation
measures, noting that all the questions will "take years to answer
- if they are answered at all."
One would hope after reading this book, that readers will take
action and that the lives lost and damage done will not have been
in vain. Perhaps readers will continue to nudge those still
"When the next natural disaster strikes, Vermonters will no doubt
respond as they did to Irene," she said, the ultimate compliment to
what so many volunteers and fundraisers accomplished.
Shinn will be speaking and/or doing book signings at: Bartleby's
Books in Wilmington at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24; at Phoenix
Books, Burlington, 7 p.m., Aug. 28; Fletcher Cavendish Library,
Proctorsville, 7 p.m., Aug. 29; and at Base Camp Outfitters in
Killington over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m.
Shinn urges readers to purchase locally. You can find Deluge at
the Book Nook in Ludlow, at Base Camp Outfitters in Killington, and
Yankee Bookshop and Shiretown Books in Woodstock. Also try Book
King in Rutland as well as stores in Pittsfield, Wilmington,
Jamaica, and Royalton.
Deluge was published by University Press of New England and
retails for $27.95 hardcover and