Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Wilmington picks up the pieces after a record-breaking flood

Downtown hit hardest by out-of-control Deerfield River

WILMINGTON—“Half a life of work is just gone,” says Ann Coleman.

Floodwaters from the weekend’s Tropical Storm Irene swept Coleman’s eponymous gallery, building and all, down the Deerfield River, on Sunday, depositing the building’s slab foundation in the middle of West Main Street.

Coleman says she will keep painting in her home studio, but it is too soon to know if she will reopen a gallery.

On Monday, a clear blue sky and vibrant sun bathed downtown in late summer light as an inch of silt left behind by Sunday’s raging floodwaters dried under dormant traffic lights.

The churning waters breached the river’s banks Sunday rushing into the buildings lining the river’s banks and across Route 9.

According to the town’s website, “All of Wilmington’s critical infrastructure has been devastated: police, fire, wastewater, and town Services. Most of the downtown business suffered extensive water damage, [and] the Route 9 bridge in downtown has not been inspected for structural soundness.”

Town Manager Fred Ventresco said that as of Aug. 30, the town had repaired the municipal water and sewer systems damaged by the flood, whose waters exceeded the town’s 1938 flood level record by about a foot.

The system is still “makeshift” until the engineers can shore up the pipes, Ventresco said.

The town is under a boil water order, he said.

Emergency workers, National Guard members, state troopers, and police directed business owners and residents through the empty crossroads of Route 9 and Route 100 north.

Miles of yarn swept from a fiber store like a mass of multicolored seaweed entwines around the town’s Pergola. A tree stripped of bark and branches stretched over the railing and onto the bridge spanning a swiftly flowing, muddy Deerfield River.

The longest day

Sunday started before sunrise for emergency responders, said Fire Chief Ken March.

“They’ve been working their rear ends off,” he said.

According to March, the town opened its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the Fire Station on Beaver Street at 5:30 a.m.

The “tone to evacuate” went out at 8 a.m., he said.

By mid-morning, waters had claimed Beaver Street, and the EOC was “chased out of the fire station,” said March.

Emergency responders relocated to the Twin Valley High School, which also served as the town’s emergency shelter.

Sunday night the shelter provided cots and food for 40 travelers and 22 National Guard members, said March.

The high school does not have water, either, said March but the town has provided portable toilet facilities.

“The police, fire, and town clerk offices are offline,” says Town Clerk Susan Haughwout, who said the water reached “chest high” in some areas of the town offices.

She pointed to the water line of dirt and sticks halfway up one wall of the town office’s first floor.

A muddy film of river dirt and furnace oil covered the soggy carpet underfoot as Haughwout led the way to her office. The hallway was littered with phone books, paper products, and small furniture deposited by receding water.

Saving drenched town records before they “rot” dominates the top of Haughwout’s to-do list.

With the help of town employees and Rep. Ann Manwaring, Haughwout managed to whisk three-quarters of the files stored in the town vault to the floor above.

Haughwout said “we started using everything we had,” from rolling chairs to carts, to move the documents upstairs.

The water outside was rising so fast, Haughwout said she had to “triage” the records, leaving the ones that didn’t make it upstairs on the vault’s highest shelves.

Once Haughwout and the records moving crew finished shifting what they could, they exited the town offices onto Main Street.

“I stepped into the water outside and hot-footed it out of there,” Haughwout said.

The town offices, like most of downtown, are not open to the public at this time.

Prayers and bottled water

The Rev. Emily Heath sat on the steps of the Wilmington Congregational Church, U.C.C., distributing bottled water and offering pastoral support to passers-by on Monday.

Heath, who also serves the West Dover Congregational Church, watched the waters rise in around her home in Dover but said Wilmington experienced worse damage.

She spent most of Monday checking on parishioners and reported everyone was “accounted for and okay.”

“Everyone feels helpless because they want to do more,” Heath said.

“And we’re in the hope business,” she added with a smile.

Heath said the shock she could see on the faces of those in Wilmington exceeded what she saw in her three years as a trauma chaplin. The widespread damage displacing family after family marked the difference, she says.

But she has witnessed neighbors and small business owners reaching out to one another showing more concern for others over themselves.

“It’s amazing,” she said.

Salvaging what’s left

Members of Wilmington’s business community, those able to access their buildings, tried to salvage what they could.

Selectboard member Meg Streeter, who also owns Meg Streeter Real Estate on South Main Street, met Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Vermont National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie as they toured downtown.

She greeted the delegation on the Route 9 bridge while she carried her computer’s CPU and two three-ring binders salvaged from her office.

Shumlin, Leahy, and Dubie toured Vermont via helicopter to view flood damage, making a stop in Wilmington after visiting Brattleboro.

Ventresco, the town manager, estimated that more than 15 businesses were flooded out, but he warned thatit’s too early to give concrete numbers.

Ann Coleman estimates the flood will leave her short her $300,000 investment. She says three jewelers, a furniture maker, and a fiber artist also worked from her gallery.

Coleman’s husband, Joe Specht, of A Place In Vermont Real Estate, said he lost his client list, which took years to build.

Coleman was almost in tears as she told Shumlin, Leahy, and Dubie about the loss of her gallery.

An orange “Danger Do Not Enter” sign hangs above the door to Dot’s Restaurant, which abuts the Deerfield.

“It’s devastating,” Shumlin said as he viewed the town landmark. The river water climbed the banks to the restaurant’s eves, shearing away portions of the building’s blue clapboards.

But Shumlin assured town officials that Vermont has the support of its congressional delegation and that Wilmington is “top priority.”

Shumlin could not give a firm timeline but said Wilmington will make its way from “crisis to recovery.”

“It tears at your heart,” said Leahy about Dot’s during his tour of Wilmington. “We will rebuild. Vermonters don’t give up.”

Like what we do? Help us keep doing it!

We rely on the donations and financial support of our readers to help make The Commons available to all. Please join us today.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.


We are currently reconfiguring our comments software. Please check back if you’d like to read or leave comments on this story. —The editors

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

Share this story


Related stories

More by Olga Peters