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Brattleboro assesses damage from Whetstone flash flood

DeGray: Lessons learned from Brooks House fire being applied to cope with ongoing disaster

BRATTLEBORO—The Brooks House fire in April was a major disaster for Brattleboro, but little did town officials know that the lessons they learned in dealing with the fire and its aftermath would be applied again so soon, and on a much larger scale.

Tropical Storm Irene caused massive flood damage to homes and businesses along Whetstone Brook on Sunday, and Town Manager Barbara Sondag said every town department has been fully mobilized to deal with the disaster.

“This is not like the Brooks House fire, where only one block of downtown was affected,” said Sondag at a briefing at the Municipal Center on Monday afternoon. “Whole sections of town have been affected.”

Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray said the teamwork of town agencies that took place during and after the fire provided a model for the town to use in its response to some of the worst flood damage Brattleboro has seen in decades.

“We learned a lot from the fire, and we’re putting that knowledge to work now,” DeGray said. “I’m extremely proud of the pre-planning and the execution of our responders. This was more than any of us thought it was going to be. We’re 150 miles from the nearest ocean, and the damage is still devastating.”

The town started getting ready for the storm last Thursday, Sondag said.

By Saturday, evacuations had begun at Melrose Terrace. Early Sunday morning, residents at Hayes Court and Westgate were evacuated. Other residents living near the Whetstone in West Brattleboro were told to leave their homes as the brook rose rapidly from storm runoff.

“Had we waited another hour,” said Sondag, “it would have been a totally different situation.”

‘All hell broke loose’

By 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sondag said “all hell broke loose.”

The Whetstone rose over its banks, and every property along its path flooded.

At noontime, Williams Street was evacuated and debris was hurtling down the Whetstone. The Williams Street Bridge was nearly swept away, and a sewer line was severed. The back end of the Whetstone Center for the Arts was washed away.

Within a hour of the evacuation, Flat, Frost and Elm streets were under 2 to 3 feet of water.

Flat Street was hit hard. The lower levels of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters took on water. Also suffering flood damage: the Brattleboro Transportation Center, the Boys & Girls Club, the Latchis Theatre block, the C.F. Church building, Lynde Motorsports, Sanel Auto Parts, the R.E. Dunklee machine tool shop, and the New England Youth Theatre.

The C.F. Church building and the Latchis were particularly hard hit.

Gail Nunziata, executive director of the Brattleboro Arts Initiative, which owns the Latchis, said the basement saw 7 feet of water, which swamped the building’s mechanical equipment.She said it will take days before the basement is cleaned up.

The theater and the hotel saw little damage, she added.

The C.F. Church building had similar flooding problems, and the businesses and offices in that space remain closed.

New England Youth Theatre, next door to the Church building, suffered far less damage despite it being enveloped in the floodwaters. It had many protective measures in place, including 3-foot floodgates at every exit.

“They [the state and local building inspectors] seemed surprised that we fared so well,” said Rick Barron, NEYT technical director. “There was not a lot of water damage inside, but we were very prepared. We had our floodgates up, and they’re what saved us, undoubtedly.”

The water quickly receded Sunday night, leaving about 8 to 10 inches of mud and slit to be cleaned on Monday morning.

State and local inspectors did damage assessments of all downtown buildings that suffered flood damage on Monday, and those that were safe for occupancy reopened by the end of the day.

In West Brattleboro, where the worst of the Whetstone’s flooding occurred, it might be several more days before damaged businesses and homes can reopen. Brattleboro Police, assisted by the Windham Country Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont National Guard, are patrolling the areas that are still closed.

Police Chief Eugene Wrinn said the patrols are “trying to keep the sightseers and gawkers out,” and he urged people heed the barriers and roadblocks that his department put up.

“We’re not putting them up to bust people’s chops,” Wrinn said. “We have them up because it is dangerous to go past the yellow tape. Don’t move them or go around them.”

Federal help coming

Sondag advised property owners to contact their insurance companies, even if they are unsure if they have the proper coverage.

Sondag said that the town filed its disaster declaration with the state on Sunday morning, adding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had released aid and money to the state on Monday afternoon.

Residents needing assistance may visit the FEMA website to file a claim, and use e-mail to get on a town notification list.

Sondag did warn residents to be prepared to “hurry up and wait” for federal help.

The amount of aid that’s needed, particularly for infrastructure, is considerable. Sondag said portions of Western Avenue and Marlboro Road have been undermined by flooding, and Route 9 past Cook Road has been completely washed away.

“It looks like it will be quite a while before it is fixed,” she said. “The Whetstone has changed its course in some spots.”

Despite the flood damage that Brattleboro suffered, Sondag said she knows other towns were hit much harder.

“We were one of the fortunate ones,” she said. “Our hearts go out to Wilmington, and all the other towns that were devastated by the storm. We will be doing what we can to help these towns.”

DeGray said he was struck by the stark contrasts he saw driving around Brattleboro on Monday.

“I saw people out enjoying the last days of summer, and I saw people who were dealing with a terrible disaster,” he said. “You look at some parts of town, and you wonder how it’s going to be put back together.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #116 (Wednesday, August 31, 2011).

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