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Thunder in the water

Flood waters pour through Whitingham and Halifax all the way to Colrain, Mass.

WHITINGHAM—Long-timers Corrine and Raymond Boyd expected Tropical Storm Irene to raise the waters of the Deerfield’s North Branch.

They didn’t expect water to surround their house across Route 112 from the river.

Most days, the North Branch of the Deerfield River bubbles through the village of Jacksonville, swift and sparkling, following Route 112 to Colrain, Mass..

It passes the Municipal Center, behind residents, in front of Honora Winery, behind the gas station and the Village of Jacksonville Electric Company, and then into Halifax, funneling over the waterfalls of Halifax Gorge.

According to the Deerfield Valley Watershed Association’s website, the Deerfield begins on Stratton Mountain, eventually joining with the Connecticut River in Deerfield, Mass. The river has four tributaries in Vermont: North, South, East, and West Branches. The Deerfield watershed drainage area covers about 665 square miles. The main river, the Deerfield, is over 70 miles long.

Irene’s rains quickly filled the Deerfield’s North Branch Sunday morning.

The water swelled beyond the riverbed hungry for the soils, trees, asphalt, and boulders in its path. The gushing water chewed away portions of Route 100 between Wilmington and Jacksonville.

The water left the asphalt in the Municipal Center’s front parking lot warped like plastic left in the blistering sun.

It swarmed around houses, leaving gravel beds in place of green lawns.

A bridge connecting Route 112 to a private residence tore away under water’s force, slamming into its neighbor. The resulting debris dammed against the second bridge.

Some of the debris could be seen, like a green aluminum canoe tossed over the spontaneous dam onto the third bridge leading to Honora Winery.

The North Branch tore free of its banks flooding Route 112 and soaking portions of the village. Residents evacuated to higher ground.

Narrow escape

South of the village, the Boyds watched the river.

Corrine Boyd said a neighbor banged on the couple’s door about 11:30 a.m.

“He told us we had to get out now,” she said.

A culvert a couple miles north of the Boyds’ farmhouse had plugged and diverted the floodwaters from the river into the pastures opposite.

Corrine Boyd grabbed clothes and food. It took them “15 minutes to pack,” she said.

That was about how long it also took for floodwaters to surge across the fields and surround their house, sheds, and garage with two feet of water.

The river, however, never crossed Route 112 near the Boyds’ house.

The Boyds spent the night with the neighbors who warned them of the rising waters. She said they were lucky to have “such good friends.”

“If they hadn’t stopped to help us, we never would have known the water was coming,” Corrine Boyd said.

Their house survived, she said. The old stone foundation didn’t hold back the water for long.

Raymond Boyd said the water “tore apart” their furnace, leaving the basement covered in “mucky grease.”

On Route 112 in Halifax, south of the Boyds’ house, two Halifax residents looked out over the Halifax Gorge, normally a steep hike down from the road.

The water was about 25 feet above its normal level, one said.

Trees, root balls, 50-gallon oil drums, and other flotsam and jetsam swirled down the gorge taking swaths of Route 112 with them.

“It sounded like thunder all night long,” said the Halifax resident. But, he added, it was just the trees and boulders being swept downstream.

Memories of ’38

Corrine Boyd remembers the Hurricane of 1938.

Irene, she said, “was just so much bigger” in terms of water damage, but not in wind.

Boyd remembers her father trying to bring the cows from the nearby pasture on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938. Some didn’t want to leave the woods.

“They sensed something,” she said.

That was about the only warning the Boyds got. The wind and rain came suddenly, and slashed down from late afternoon until about 10 p.m.

But “by 10 o’clock the [North] river was back in its bed,” she said.

Cleaning up

By Monday morning, Jacksonville started cleaning up from the rainy Sunday.

A crane hauled debris from under the two remaining private bridges. Jacksonville Electric’s warehouse building stood on a eroded platform of ground surrounded by a dried moat carved by the previous day’s waters.

Farther south in Halifax, Route 112 required a slow and careful drive. In some places, the damaged road shrank to one lane. The trees opposite the muddy river sat covered in silt and dragged down, the grass and undergrowth flattened from the flood’s force.

Across the Vermont line in Colrain, Mass., pastures and corn fields have been transformed into a muddy yard sale, with — tall trees strewn like pick-up sticks, rocks, flip-flops, blue tarps, and marshmallow-like round hay bales wrapped in white plastic.

Everything the river no longer wanted.

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

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