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Charlene Wakefield/Special to The Commons

The Westminster road crew works on repairing extensive damage to Dickinson Hill Road.

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Work begins to rebuild from massive flood damage

A heavy storm system on July 29 caused an estimated $3 million in damage in county; state will apply for federal disaster assistance

One of the rainiest Julys on record in Windham County ended with a wave of heavy showers and thunderstorms on July 29 that dumped as much as 5 inches of rain in a matter of few hours and caused flash flooding that damaged miles of roads and multiple homes.

No injuries were reported, but emergency crews were kept busy with evacuations from places where flash flooding occurred.

Gov. Phil Scott toured flood-damaged areas of Putney and Westminster on Aug. 2.

The state is now in the process of applying for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as initial damage assessments by the Agency of Transportation show approximately $3.3 million of damage to local roads in Windham County from the flooding. Damage to local roads in Bennington County is pegged at $1.2 million, Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief for Vermont Emergency Management, told The Commons on Tuesday.

Rose provided these numbers with the caveat that they are very preliminary and represent only the first steps in a long process in seeking federal disaster relief.

The figures also do not include damage to private property. Nor do they include damage to federal highways statewide, for which federal aid is a separate process.

The bulk of the $1.6 million damage to federal roads in Vermont from the weather system was incurred in Addison County. Both Windham and Bennington counties suffered less than $100,000 each of damage t0 federal roads.

“People with private property damage caused by the recent flooding in southern Vermont should call 2-1-1 to report it,” Rose notes; if calling on Wi-Fi, dial 866-652-4636. “Reporting damage assists with understanding the full scope of the disaster as well as referrals for emergency issues.”

Flashbacks of Irene

While the storm damage was reminiscent of what happened with Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, much of it happened in places that escaped Irene’s wrath a decade ago, and it all happened with less rainfall.

According to storm totals reported to the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., the heaviest rainfall fell in the Putney and Westminster area, which received 4.5 inches.

Townshend received nearly 3.5 inches, while Rockingham and East Dover got about 3.25 inches, and Dummerston and West Brattleboro received about 2.5 inches.

Other locations in the Deerfield Valley, such as Jacksonville, Wilmington, and West Dover, received between 1.3 inches and 1.8 inches.

While this rainfall amounted to less than the 7 to 11 inches that fell during Irene, the July 29 storm had one thing in common with Irene: a concentrated amount of rain falling on already saturated ground.

According to the Weather Service, the total average rainfall for Windham County in a typical July is about 4 inches. Prior to the July 29 storm, the county had already received between 12 and 18 inches of rain.

Another line of showers and thunderstorms swept through southern Vermont on the night of Aug. 1. While there were unconfirmed reports of up to 1.5 inches or rain and some hail in Jamaica, Townshend, and Grafton, the storm system produced little additional rainfall in most of the county and didn’t add to the damage that had already been done on July 29.

“The extent of the damage is still being assessed but it is significant, and reminded us far too much of Irene,” said state Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, wrote on Facebook on July 30. “Many need our help now, and so many are stepping up. I am reminded once again how glad I am to live here. In the last month I have received 19 inches of rain, including the 4 [inches] that fell last night in as many hours.”

A rainy close call

On the night of the 29th, there were reports of evacuations and flooded cellars in Jamaica. Susanna Loewy, executive director of the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival, was one of those caught in the storm.

After staging a concert at the Grafton Community Church in conjunction with this year’s festival, she and her husband in one car and her parents following in another car encountered what turned out to be an impassable road when they turned onto Route 30 at Townshend, just past the Jamaica town line.

It didn’t seem so at first.

“There was a place where the road was out, but it seemed we could go over it,” Loewy said. “Then, about 100 feet later, big rocks in the road made it impassable and by that time it was also impossible to go back the other way.”

The waters were rising, “but we passed over, and I guess we shouldn’t have,” she continued. “We decided to get out of our cars and try to move the rocks so we could get through.”

In addition to Lowey, her husband, and her parents, another driver, dog in tow, helped clear the road. By then, the water was ankle-deep. “I was almost wading,” she said.

Lowey then called a friend at home; the friend, in turn, called Jamaica Fire and Rescue, whose volunteers came swiftly to the scene. All then worked to remove enough rocks to pass through, the firefighters deemed the road safe for travel, and they were on their way.

Briefly.

“When we got to the place where we were staying in Winhall, the access road was knee-deep and there was no way I was driving, so I parked at the Winhall Library and walked about a half-mile,” Loewy said. “What a crazy night.”

By the next morning, the water had receded and Loewy and her family went on to New Hampshire for the next concert.

“I was scared for a few minutes, but when we had a plan, it was fine,” she said of the perilous adventure. “I couldn’t decide afterwards if it was overly dramatic or not,” she said with a laugh.

Around the county

On the East-West Road in East Dummerston, Cleon and Theresa “Terry” Bolster had several harrowing days.

The night of the 29th, the water from Salmon Brook rose into their backyard and started to change course, and the 75- and 80-year-old heart patients were removed from their home.

“The storm turned a 4-, 5-inch brook into a raging river,” Terry Bolster said.

They were taken on four-wheelers by the local fire and rescue team to the end of their quarter-mile driveway, which was otherwise impassable, where their daughter waited to take them to her home for the night.

“The house is OK,” said Bolster, who was back at home on Monday before having to make a trip up to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., the following day for a heart procedure.

“When the fire department came and we opened the door,” she continued, “the water was right there at the door, but fortunately it stopped raining so it didn’t come in all the way.”

“Thank God for us a concerned neighbor knew we lived down here and called for help,” Bolster said. “To quote his words, ‘Sometimes people get overlooked,’ and he just wanted to be sure we were OK.”

While the house is undamaged, the couple’s property was heavily damaged. With so many people needing assistance, they are struggling to find help.

“My daughter has been here since nine o’clock and we’ve done nothing but go ‘round the bush,’” said Bolster, noting calls to the United Way of Windham County and several other local, state, and regional agencies. “It’s a case of where everybody just refers you to someone else.”

“All you get is ‘leave a number, leave a number, leave a number,’ or ‘we can’t do anything,’” she said. “We have two whole pages of phone numbers. Good old bureaucracy and political people.”

By about noontime on Monday, however, the Bolsters did have a visit from town officials, who told them that since the state-owned creek touched a building on the property, the state would have to step in. The questions are how and when.

“The biggest problem is there are all of these trees in the brook, and three of them are all tangled and if there’s another storm, we’re right back to flooding,” said Bolster.

“There’s a town culvert on Miller Road that has caused our driveway to wash out and several fallen trees on Schoolhouse Road caused water to back up,” she continued. “It washed away the underpinning of the barn where my husband now has his workshop.”

“One more rainstorm and we have some real serious problems,” Bolster added. “It literally took the dumpster, which was due to be emptied Wednesday, and washed it right away. We don’t know where that is. It’s down the Connecticut [River] somewhere.”

Right now, Bolster said they have “a field of stones and trenches for a front yard. My son built a make-do bridge for the driveway so in a severe emergency we could get out.” Bolster said her husband’s truck, while not completely lying on its side, is “tilted.”

“Our garden tractor is stuck in the muck,” she said. “We had a canopy-type tent and underneath we had tools and so forth and that’s all gone; we lost the whole 20-by-20 tent. It’s just a devastating mess.”

The Bolsters are uninsured — the cost of flood insurance for property near a brook “was out of our means,” she said.

The couple’s main concern now, Bolster said, is to “get the trees removed and out of the brook so that if we get another heavy storm, we’re not facing this, and to get the driveway repaired. The state owns the brook, and it seems they should be responsible.”

Elsewhere in the county, water accumulated quickly and wreaked havoc.

In Bellows Falls, the fire department reported waist-deep water and heavy debris around Laurel Avenue, Hyde Hill, and Wells Street due to a plugged culvert. They said they pumped water out of about a half-dozen homes.

In Newfane, emergency personnel monitored a group of homes behind W.W. Building Supply on Route 30 that were threatened by floodwaters.

W.W.’s new retail store, built next to the town office in 2019, stayed dry. The former store, storage building, and warehouse were not as fortunate, according to the company’s update on Facebook.

Much work to be done

The morning after the storm on July 30 was bright and sunny as town highway departments, supplemented with private contractors, worked as quickly as possible to make roads passable.

It was huge task in many towns.

In Putney, 13 roads were closed, with the worst damage found on Holland Hill, Pine Banks, and River roads.

State Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn toured the damage areas, including several large washouts on River Road.

That afternoon, several neighbors from Wardon Road, accompanied by a chihuahua, walked down to look at a spectacular washout on River Road South — damage that far eclipsed damage in their part of town (notwithstanding the river running through where one driveway used to be).

As the spectators walked back up the hill, Andrew Fraser, an employee of the Agency of Transportation based in Rockingham, passed them in a backhoe, stopped, and got out to peer into the ravine.

When asked where one even begins to address damage like this, he paused contemplatively.

“The secretary of transportation is already down here to figure that one out,” said Fraser, whose mission was far more reasonable: putting up sturdier, more emphatic barriers to close the road.

A dozen roads were damaged in Dummerston, with multiple washouts on Spaulding Hill, Camp Arden, Bunker, Stickney Brook, Canoe Brook, and Greenhouse roads. Nearly all were made passable for single lane traffic by the end of the day.

Newfane and Townshend had a considerable amount of flood damage along Route 30 when the streams that feed into the West River quickly overflowed.

Westminster had eight dirt roads that were totally impassible, and some paved roads were iffy due to rainfall eroding the shoulders of the roadway. According to the fire department, the worst damage was in the area of Westminster Heights Road, with washouts and flooding on Henwood Hill and Orchard Hill, Piggery Road, and School Street.

In Grafton, Townshend Road and Kidder Hill were damaged, but not closed, while Hinkley Brook Road saw more damage, according to the fire department.

Athens also had relatively little damage. According to Sandy Capponcelli, Sam Farr Road, McKusket Road, and the east end of Reed Road were impassible for a time, but were eventually reopened. “We are fortunate that the roads that mitigation [work] has been done on held up,” she said.

Brattleboro had little damage from this storm, but the town was still making more than $300,000 in repairs of flash flooding damage from a storm on July 14.

Elected officials meet with governor

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, has some firsthand knowledge of the problems at hand.

“My ability to get to and from my house has been altered since Friday morning,” she said in a text message on Monday night.

For most of that day, both Henwood Hill Road and Covered Bridge Road were closed.

“Henwood Hill Road had eroded and [was] dangerous,” Bos-Lun said, noting that a car went off what remained.

By evening, workers had “hauled in tremendous quantities of rocks to rebuild part of the roadway so that the people on my hill could get in and out of their homes,” she said.

“It is almost incomprehensible how they repaired it so quickly. The road crew did impressive work,” Bos-Lun said, praising the workers for their commitment in the face of a daunting task.

“The dedication of many individuals working long hours to repair our communities is commendable,” she said.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, recounted the governor’s visit to the ravaged Windham-4 district, which he represents jointly with Bos-Lun. The governor surveyed the damage with both representatives and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro.

In an email, Mrowicki told The Commons that he was “glad that Gov. Scott came down and could see firsthand the severe damage that was limited to this swath of southern Vermont.”

Among the topics of conversation was concern from the two representatives that constituents were calling the Vermont 211 information and referral line — as promoted on social media by the legislative delegation — yet were met with no answer or voice mail.

“During emergencies, people need to know there are people at the other end of the phone line,” Mrowicki said.

But the big issue will be funding the repairs to town-owned and -maintained roads and bridges.

“Town crews and local contractors are working hard to get the roads back in use, but the costs are way out of what’s budgeted and we’ll need help as soon as possible,” Mrowicki said.

“Hopefully, the governor’s visit can help expedite that funding and allow upgrading the size of culverts,” he added. “With climate change, these storms are more prevalent and severe, so we need to be better prepared.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #624 (Wednesday, August 4, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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