As I write this, the day promises to be sunny, pleasant and dry, hinting of fall—the same weather that followed in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, August 28-29, 2011. Vermonters had been forewarned of a hurricane moving in our direction and we expected wind—the kind that flattened whole stands of timber in the Hurricane of ’38. What we all witnessed, instead, was appalling devastation wrought by massive volumes of water that were still ripping down the mountainsides, filling valleys, turning highways into rivers, gouging out hillsides, reducing buildings and houses to matchsticks, and sweeping away everything in its path that wasn’t bolted down.
My house was near the end of State Garage Road at the south end of Rochester village, where the West Branch of the White River descends from the Green Mountain Range, crosses a broad valley, winds between high wooded bluffs and empties into the main stem of the White River. The house sits high above the West Branch, and that first morning I drove down the road to the bridge at Route 100 with the intention of going into town. I got out of my car and walked to the bridge, which was intact. But brown water was surging beneath it at a very fast clip, perhaps one foot below the bridge deck.
At that moment a neighbor’s boy came over to me and pointed out where, unnoticed by me, the West Branch was fanning out fast across the hayfields in our direction. By the time I got back in my car and turned around, the water was starting to spill across the road, which was about 2/3 of a mile from the river channel.
Ironically, that field had at some prior time been planted with seedlings, each in its light blue tube, as a measure to prevent riverbank erosion. That project was down the drain, literally. Water rising gradually may have preserved the baby trees, but the torrents coming out of the hills—what in the old days was called a freshet—was irresistible. From my windows I could hear the rumble of boulders being rolled down the river by water. The force of water undercut the riverbanks, exposing and finally loosening the root balls of full-grown trees, which then toppled and rafted downstream with everything else. Now, five years later, these scars remain: the fields of boulders in the mountain streams such as Cold River and Mill River in Clarendon and Shrewsbury, and most strikingly the high, still raw cliffs of gravel and sand visible from Route 4 in Mendon, where trees are still sliding down.
Having traveled in the West and Alaska, I now understand what I was looking at along those big western rivers: massive erosion due to torrential flooding. Our rivers look just like that, though on a smaller scale.
When the water receded—which it rapidly did the following day—it became apparent Rochester and every other town along Route 100 North—in addition to many others—were cut off from the world. The more modern bridges themselves were not detached from their moorings—as the covered bridges had been in 1927. Modern engineering had built bridges to withstand flooding, but the current had swirled around them, washing out the approaches. Culverts had been overwhelmed. The Route 73 bridge—Route 100’s link to Brandon and a main mountain crossing—was now a ramp, with one end in the river.
It wasn’t hard to know where to begin the clean-up. Houses had to be emptied immediately, transportation links had to be cobbled together, roads and fields had to be cleared of gravel, boulders and a foot of silt that made them look like ocean beaches. Piles of sodden household belongings appeared in front yards as flooded basements and living spaces were emptied out to help dry the houses out and reduce mold. Local folks jumped into ATVs and headed into the back country on old, almost forgotten log roads and trails to bypass the broken bridges and find residents living in the hills.
Vermont’s “can-do” tradition, often put aside in normal times in deference to official approval and the availability of funding, followed the “do it now and apologize later” approach. An iconic image was the lone guy on his own backhoe or bulldozer, working to shove debris off the road. The Route 73 link to West Rochester was partially restored by local men, some of whom work for the Forest Service in town, who rigged up a foot bridge with pine logs, lumber and roofing shingles for skid-proofing. Later refinements included solar lights and a life ring. Folks who needed to get to work would park at the end of the bridge and walk across to a second car or a ride on the Route 100 side.
The power was out, of course. Food in refrigerators had to be used right away, so neighborhood cookouts sprang up everywhere. Pittsfield’s annual picnic was inaugurated; in Rochester, Huntington House fed the community from its larder. After about a week, Central Vermont Public Service somehow hauled a temporary substation over the mountain into Rochester. The supply center moved to the Rochester school, which cooked meals and dispensed necessaries from toilet paper to pet food.
A self-appointed task force recognized the need to get medications into Rochester, so they established a supply chain whereby someone would drive east over Bethel Mountain Road to the washout, and meet someone coming from the Bethel-Randolph side with medications.
Right away, the road conditions in and out of Rochester were explored. With bridges inaccessible and washouts south, east and west, the only way for some time was the long way around from the north, over rough back roads, often marked with cardboard signs: “This way to Waitsfield.” The back roads were pressed into service. On Lilliesville Road, you crossed small washouts on piles of brush—a logger’s trick. Travelers found themselves venturing into places they had perhaps never been.
And everywhere you saw the signs, scrawled or neatly lettered on boards or pieces of cardboard: “Thank you.” Thank you to the first responders, to the highway crews, to the utility crews, to the neighbors, to anyone who helped in any way at any time.
When President Coolidge toured Vermont in 1928, the year after the devastating Flood of 1927, he departed from his usual laconic utterances and wrote the famous “Vermont is a state I love.” He concluded with perhaps a prophetic message to all of us: “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
The power of moving water: we don’t wish it on anyone, and we in Vermont make common cause with Baton Rouge this year, other places other years and the years to come. We know. We also know that we are all in this together and simple resourcefulness, grit and caring can get us through almost anything.