I have fallen slowly — and sometimes quickly — deeply in love with Vermont, flaws and all. But some of why I love being here, and being of here, is what I witnessed in 2011 around Tropical Storm Irene.
Now when Irene hit, I wake up the next morning and thought, “Oh, my god, there are still cherry tomatoes. How bad can this be?”
Little did I know. Not far from me, off of Williams Street, the water was raging.
I used to do a radio program on WKVT — Live and Local — from 9 a.m. to noon. I got off of my show, and that big round head over there — Peter “Fish” Case, the station manager — poked his head into my studio and said, “I’m going to Wilmington — you coming with me?”
To my knowledge, Wilmington was inaccessible. Dover was inaccessible, Large pieces of Route 9 were gone — it was like a war zone.
I didn’t really have a moment to think about it. Why would I not? “I’m a radio guy,” I thought. “Of course I’m going.”
I didn’t know what we were doing. All I knew was we weren’t going to be allowed to go, so how bad could it get?
* * *
Little did I know that my friend Fish is deeply tied in with friends in the State Police, and, therefore, soon we were heading up Ames Hill Road with a truck full of drinking water, some microphones, a P.A. system, and other equipment.
The story was that Laura Sibilia, a civic leader in Wilmington and Dover, had contacted Fish and said, “We’ve got people trapped in their houses. We’re having an emergency meeting and we have no way of letting them know what’s happening. Could you come up? What can we do?”
And Fish suggested we come up with a bunch of fancy-pants electronics and broadcast the information to people who literally couldn’t get out of their homes.
* * *
Now comes the part of the story where I almost died going up Ames Hill Road.
Initially, we were in the ’KVT van driving, and we wound up doing this circuitous sort of zig-zaggy, are-you-kidding-me sort of thing. Now, Fish went to high school in Wilmington — he knows the area. I didn’t know that side of the county very well — I didn’t think it was possible. I thought that pretty much at any point we would be turning around and that would be that.
And ... no.
Fish was driving the van up Ames Hill Road. I was looking out the window and didn’t see ground — in other words, the road had fallen away in a way that was ... yeah, I’m going to die. Today’s my day. (That turned out not to be true, and I can prove that.)
So we’re winding this way, and we made it to South Road and we zigzagged back and came out that way. I don’t really recall the specifics, but I do remember driving down Route 9 to Lake Raponda Road. It wasn’t like, Oh, a little bit of the road is gone. It’s like, Are you kidding me? It was massive. It wasn’t just a few pieces. It was like it was like a cartoon. It wasn’t real.
* * *
We wound up at the Dover Elementary School — and this is the part where I start to fall deeper in love with Vermont.
I’m already in love with Vermont. I’m doing a talk show three hours a day, five days a week about the best parts of Windham County and Vermont.
I came into the school. Laura was there; so were Colby Dix and a bunch of other key players from the Selectboard and so forth. People were understandably freaking out quietly.
They were pretty cool — it’s Vermont, right? But at the same time you could feel the tension in the air.
(I want to make a point of throwing this in the story somewhere: People lost their lives in this experience. Very few, thankfully — and that’s to the credit of many of the first responders in Vermont. That can’t just be skipped over.)
Quickly we set up with microphones and speakers, and the information was being broadcast — through magic that I don’t understand — to people in their houses. And this was critically important information for survival.
That was jaw dropping, I have to say.
* * *
The quality of the conversations I had with people in that building was amazing.
We in Vermont — generalizing, of course — already have the muscles and musculature of community, of being able to reflexively respond with compassion, of being able to show up when no one’s asked you to do so.
It wasn’t an accident that Dover was like that. It wasn’t an accident that so many great things happen in communities when disaster occurs. It isn’t just well-good-luck-for-us-that-worked-out. No, we work this stuff all of the time.
Dover was a good example of that, where people were understandably and rightfully scared, confused, and didn’t know what was happening. We were offering information by virtue of microphones.
* * *
Then, moving down into Wilmington and coming down Route 100, the visuals were almost surreal. You could just see where the water had been; it had just receded from that point. Main Street had been a torrent, a river; I’m 6 foot 4, and the water was considerably over my head. I was standing on that bridge by Dot’s, and it was unfathomable that that was true. But it was.
We parked and and made our way up onto Main Street. You know Routes 100 and 9 meet, I’m sure; parked right in the center of that is a camouflaged Jeep and a National Guard dude, in charge or something.
And so here came a couple of radio guys. He was looking at us kind of funny — nobody was traveling to Wilmington or any of that area.
We wound up in the middle of town. I had brought a digital recording device because I was a radio guy. But I felt kind of funny about asking, “How was that for you?” I didn’t want to be that guy. (“Really? Tragedy? Tell me more!”)
I don’t think I recorded any interviews, but we went from one place to another and met the likes of Ann Manwaring, the area’s state representative at the time. She was eloquent, and she nailed it, as did Lisa Sullivan, who owned Bartleby’s Books.
Pete the egg man, who told us stories of propane tanks going down and crashing into things, described it with a certain degree of childlike giddiness. Another guy talked about how he came down to the water and it was right about ankle deep; he went up and got his girlfriend, returned within minutes, and it was up to his waist.
One after another, we heard the stories from everybody who showed up.
* * *
That is the experience of what happened. We talked on the radio about Tropical Storm Irene for weeks on end after that. Dan deWalt and some of the people from South Newfane and towns out that way told me more stories of what it was like.
There was no waiting around for government bureaucracy to come and say, “Here’s what you’re going to want to do.” Instead, people said, “I got a backhoe; you need a road?”
And that’s how it shook out. People were showing up, checking on neighbors. They would ask, “Do you have food?” and they would say, “I’ve got food. The water’s good here.”
I heard so many stories about how in Vermont, whether someone is politically on the left or the right, there is an automatic response of neighborliness. There is an automatic response of compassion and connectedness. People may continue to think you’re a jerk the next day, but they show up — and this is how Vermont is.
I rarely admit it, but I’ve been drifting north my whole life until I finally got home and I feel home here. I feel kindred here and never more true than when we had that Irene experience.
But, at bottom, the takeaway for me is I live out my days here because there is a tribe-like community — for good or for ill, and across the board we’re not all homogenous, God knows.
In those emergent moments there is a sort of ready neighborliness that we see just in movies. And here we are being that.
Let’s face it: we could all live somewhere else to get richer, where it would be easier in the winter and mud season. We know this, and I think we all agree we’re little bit nuts to live here. So we’re nuts in a good way and that’s what happens when fires happen downtown. That’s what happens when flooding happens, that’s what happens when the next thing that happens that we’re going to have to deal with — people will be there.
What did I learn from that experience of getting in the car with that madman and not dying? For a cynic like me, who often concludes that people are awful — they’re not, and they’re certainly not here in Vermont.
I feel cheered and vitalized by being a Vermonter and I’ll say it to anybody: I don’t care if you’re seven generations here. I’m a Vermonter, too, and all of you are Vermonters, too. And it’s because of the spirit in our hearts more so than the location of our bodies.