Hurricane Irene off the coast of the United States, in a photo taken by NASA astronaut Ron Garan.
Anne Galloway of VTDigger.org contributed to this report.
Originally published in The Commons issue #116 (Wednesday, August 31, 2011).
BRATTLEBORO—The November flood of 1927. The March flood of 1936. The September hurricane and flood of 1938.
These historic weather events have the benchmarks for natural disasters in southern Vermont.
What happened in Windham County on Sunday is on par with all three, as torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused major flooding and epic devastation.
Runoff from the 4-7 inches of rain that fell on the county between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon filled virtually every small stream and river to overflowing.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, accompanied by Vermont National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., visited Brattleboro on Monday afternoon to check the damage. It was part of a statewide assessment of flood damage.
“We prepared for the worst and we got the worst in central and southern Vermont,” Shumlin said Monday. “It’s just devastating — whole communities under water. We’re tough folks here in Vermont, but Irene really hit us hard.”
He was standing next to the Whetstone Brook when he said those words. The stream ran wild through West Brattleboro and Brattleboro Sunday, breaking sewer lines, damaging roadways and bridges and sending torrents of water into Flat, Frost and Williams streets.
Those streets were still covered with mud on Monday, as public works crews used bucket loaders and fire hoses to clean them.
But Brattleboro got off easy compared to other towns in Windham County.
Wilmington remained completely cut off on Tuesday, as Routes 9 and 100 are still closed due to road washouts. The downtown area suffered extensive water damage, and the town is under a boil-water order until at least Sept. 16, according to town officials.
All of the town’s critical infrastructure was heavily damaged, and the Vermont National Guard has been deployed. Twin Valley High School is open as an emergency shelter. Food has had to be airlifted there.
In the space of just 24 hours, Irene transformed Vermont.
It has took the lives of three Vermonters (a fourth is missing). Several hundred roadways have been damaged; 33 bridges have been severely damaged. More than a dozen downtowns have been scoured by rushing water.
Water and sewage-treatment facilities have failed. Hundreds of buildings, many of them historic structures, have been compromised.
Dozens of businesses, including restaurants, stores, hotels, offices and theaters, have been destroyed. Public safety buildings in many towns have been damaged.
Utilities say it could be weeks before power is restored in some areas because of the havoc wreaked on state and local roads.
Virtually every highway in Vermont suffered damage. According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, bridges are out on Route 30 in Newfane and Jamaica. There are washouts on Route 100 in Wardsboro, Jamaica and Weston, according to Transportation Secretary Brian Searles.
The AOT has hired four contractors to begin expedited work needed to address the washouts across Route 9 between Marlboro and Brattleboro. Work also began on a portion of Route 9 on Tuesday evening and more work will commence tomorrow.
Motorists should call 511, or visit the Vermont Travel Information Service website, for the latest road closure information.
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for Vermont on Monday, and said the federal government will offer any assistance the state needs to recover from Irene. Shumlin said that he hopes Obama will declare the state a major disaster area, which would enable residents and business owners to obtain assistance as well.
In addition, Shumlin announced that the state will approve a $1.4 million investment that will leverage $10 million in loans for businesses through the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
Shumlin expressed confidence that Vermont will recover.
“Irene was gonna land somewhere. We’re not Manhattan; our small streams quickly became big rivers,” Shumlin said. “We’ve lost churches, homes, and historic bridges. But we will rebuild.”
“Vermonters are tough,” he added. “We need to lean on each other in this time and help out one another, especially our elderly citizens. If you can, invite them to stay with you; it’s much more comfortable to have a warm meal at someone’s house than at a shelter.”
Leahy said he had difficulty comprehending the level of damage he had seen around the state from the helicopter that transported the three officials.
“What was most shocking was to see the damage from above,” Leahy said. “We were looking down and the area would look fine, then a few seconds later you’d look down again and it would be all washed out.”
He would put a dollar amount on the damage, but Leahy said it will probably take months before the state’s infrastructure will be reconstructed.
Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross are in the region aiding local officials.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch accompanied Shumlin on another inspection tour on Tuesday. The trio visited Ludlow, Wilmington, and Brattleboro.
Sanders declared that the cost of the disaster would total tens of millions of dollars and scar the Green Mountain State for years to come.
Irene took a more westerly track through Vermont than first predicted. The storm, which started out as a Category 2 hurricane in the Bahamas on Friday, was downgraded to Category 1 status on Saturday morning, and remained at hurricane strength until it reached New York City at 6 a.m. Sunday.
More than four million people on the East Coast lost power Sunday, and 42 deaths have been blamed on the storm.
As much as 11 inches of rain fell on some parts of Vermont, according to the National Weather Service. In Windham County, rain totals ranged from 4 inches in East Dummerston and nearly 5 inches at the Townshend and Ball Mountain dams, to 7.47 inches in Marlboro and 7.87 inches in West Wardsboro.
Three people have died: a Ludlow boater, a municipal official in Rutland, and a 20-year-old woman in Wilmington. Another man remains missing.
A 20-year-old woman from Macedonia was the lone Windham County fatality from the storm. According to Wilmington Police Chief Joe Szarjeko, Ivana Taseva drowned when she was swept away by the Deerfield River in Wilmington on Sunday.
Taseva, her boyfriend, and two other men were driving in a car on Route 100 when they were caught in rapidly rising water. Szarjeko said the car began to be carried off by the water, and Taseva and her boyfriend were unable to get to higher ground. He was able to hang on to the car, but Taseva could not.
Her body was found several hours later near the Deerfield Valley Elementary School, about 175 yards from where she entered the water, Szarjeko said.
Taseva, a housekeeper at the Mount Snow resort, was in Vermont on a summer work visa.
The state’s utilities are busy cleaning up after Irene.
About 1,200 Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service customers in Windham County were without power as of Tuesday afternoon. At the peak of the storm on Sunday, more than 13,000 customers in the county had lost power.
Central Vermont Public Service says recovery will entail a monumental effort due to closed bridges and washouts of a number and intensity not seen in generations. More than 70,000 customer outages resulted from the storm, with about 17,000 customers statewide still without service as of Tuesday afternoon.
Line crews across central and southern Vermont are building completely new lines — often in new locations — as they work to restore power in the hardest-hit areas.
“We normally would rebuild lines where they previously stood, but in town after town, that’s no longer an option because roads are gone and the soil has washed away completely,” said Bill Jakubowski, CVPS’s coordinator of capital construction and right-of-ways. “The old locations, in many cases, are simply not an option.”
CVPS spokesman Steve Costello also said customers in many areas will see new lines in new places over the coming days. “Typically we’d have extensive discussion about the location of new power lines, but our focus right now has to be on getting service back to every community we can reach as quickly as possible,” Costello said. “This is not business as usual. Entire lines have disappeared.”
Costello said where possible the company is conferring with local officials, but in some cases CVPS will simply have to build the lines where they can find access routes. CVPS employees will be out surveying new lines today and in the coming days in advance of construction.
Crews were dealing not just with the loss of dozens of utility poles, but also the scouring of all of the soil that held the poles up.
Springfield Operations Supervisor Ed Whittemore said that in many cases, even if the road existed, there is no soil left in which to install new poles.
Projects that will entail the complete reconstruction of entire sections of the utility system. In Jamaica, for example, crews were able to feed the center of the village through a backfeed, but the lines heading in both directions from the village center were washed away.
In Wardsboro, Brattleboro Operations Supervisor Dave Miller said they found one washout that included five utility poles, but workers couldn’t go any farther because the road was gone.
“God only knows what washouts there are beyond that one,” Miller said.
Green Mountain Power brought in 200 line workers and tree trimmers to assist their crews with restoring power. Dotty Schnure, communications director, said that while nearly all of the utility’s customers in Windham County have their power back, the damage was so great in other parts of the state that it may be impossible to restore power for several days.
“While we have made significant progress restoring service, flooded roads are preventing GMP line crews from reaching some problem areas,” she said. “We will do repairs as soon as it is safe and accessible to do so. We expect in some instances it will be at least a day before flooding recedes sufficiently to be able to access these areas.”
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