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Flood scene

The day Windham County turned into our own version of Hurricane Katrina

Saxtons River

I’ve never had to live through a natural disaster, so it’s hard to imagine what it felt like for people who crawled to their roofs and scrawled “SOS” or “Help Us” during Hurricane Katrina.

I haven’t personally experienced a magnitude-seven earthquake or a tornado that made my hometown look like Hiroshima after the bomb.

But having seen the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in southern Vermont, I’ve come as close to that sort of thing as I care to.

On the day when the torrential rain fell, we waited for the winds to rev up and hoped that no large elm trees would smash our house. Then we settled in with good books.

When we lost electricity, we fired up the generator and, after a candlelight dinner, watched Masterpiece Theater. Bearing candles and flashlights, we tucked ourselves into bed and assumed it would all be over in the morning.

With the sun shining brightly against a crystal-clear blue sky and not a tree branch out of place, we sighed with relief.

“Wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it would be,” my husband said.

Then I went to collect our mail from the post office three miles away.

* * *

On the way there, traffic was detoured through someone’s backyard. A telephone pole lay head down in the river, part of the road was gone, and wires were strewn low over the ground.

Farther on, river debris suggested what was to come.

At the post office, the buzz was big.

“The two new bridges in Chester are out!” one patron said.

“The Grafton Cheese factory is gone.”

“We’ve lost the Bartonsville covered bridge!”

Then I was told about the detour to our nearest town for groceries.

Bellows Falls was unscathed, but what I saw trying to return home was astounding. The Saxtons River, which had cut numerous paths as it rushed to escape itself, had begun to recede by then; the debris it left was extraordinary.

Trees, rocks, bits of metal, shards of wood, household detritus floated by shores strewn with downed limbs and upturned roots. Wooden houses that a day earlier had stood by the riverbank were collapsed as if the weight of the world had fallen upon them. Mud flats replaced green fields.

At that point, my curiosity got the better of me; I decided to see what had happened nearby. As I turned onto Route 35 toward Grafton, the collapsed road looked like a bomb had struck it.

A few gawkers like me were standing on broken macadam, cameras in hand. I asked a man whose house sits on the road opposite the river what it had been like the night before.

The water, he said, reached the steps before receding.

“See those rocks?” he said, pointing to giant boulders stacked against what a day before had been tranquil river bank. “They weren’t there before. They came crashing down the river. It sounded like gunshots when they crashed into each other.”

An elderly woman in a car looked at me and shook her head. “I remember the one in 1938,” she said. “I was 13. It was bad, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Like a voyeur, I couldn’t resist seeing what had happened toward Townshend and Newfane, and once I’d got that far, I had to see Brattleboro.

The road to Williamsville was clear; the historic villages of Townshend and Newfane had escaped major damage. But on Route 30 south, there was another detour.

When I returned to the main road, I saw why. The portion of road that crosses the river was hanging like a fragile ribbon, its pylons and the embankments that anchored them gone. Again, trees and debris cluttered the riverbed where raging waters had abandoned them. It looked like a war zone.

Brattleboro was deceptively normal at first glance. But Flat Street told the story of what had happened.

The water was gone, but the street was covered in mud. The shops were shut, and a police officer kept repeating “You can’t go there,” to pedestrians.

The footbridge from the Co-op to the area behind the Latchis Hotel was cordoned off. The “brook” that had caused the damage still flowed forcefully, but its power was gone, leaving a stunned town that had already suffered so much loss in what seemed the summer of its discontent.

I made my way home, back past the landscape that was once beautiful and now stunningly naked and abused. How, I wondered, would it ever recover?

It will, of course, and so will we.

Vermonters are resilient. We take care of one another, and we love our verdant land.

But for now, all I can think of is all the people who weren’t as lucky as we were.

Their “Help Us” and “SOS” calls still ring in my ears.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #117 (Wednesday, September 7, 2011).

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