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

‘Putting the river back where it was’

West River Valley towns deal with a new landscape created by Irene’s flooding

NEWFANE—The dramatic reconfiguration of the land in parts of the West River Valley is nearly as poignant to some as the deep losses of homes, cars, businesses, guest houses, barns, sheds, studios, and other property.

Sara Deluca, visiting from Connecticut, spent many vacations over the years at her father’s Williamsville cabin high up a hill off the Dover Road.

This time around, she said, all she could do was shake her head and hope to get the geography straight.

“I don’t understand it,” Deluca said as she walked up and down the Dover Road. “I’m trying to figure it all out. I can’t remember where anything was.”

Newfane Road Foreman Todd Lawley had the same feeling about a portion of the Rock River in Williamsville.

“The river is in a different place than it was, and we are about to put back where it came from,” he said during a Selectboard meeting last Thursday.

But now, as Townshend Road Foreman Kurt Bostrom said Monday afternoon, “The triage is over, and we’re in the healing stage.”

Going forward

All in all, Bostrom said, “Townshend was pretty fortunate. Every road was affected and by 7 a.m. Monday [Aug. 29], the whole town was going forward.”

However, his house and property, as well as his mother’s, both off Depot Road, were hit pretty hard by water and mud from the overflowing Mill Brook. Bostrom has been working every day since the storm and, he said, his wife Michelle has spent about five days pumping water from the basement.

As of Monday at noon, all but two roads were passable in Townshend, according to David Dezendorf, the town’s emergency management coordinator. He said the south end of East Hill Road is closed except to residents who live below the enormous gully torn by floods.

At the bridge on Route 30 over the Mill River, a yawning circular chasm carved from the banks on the Harmonyville Store side of the road will require attention very soon, Dezendorf said.

The Townshend Dam road is closed to through traffic coming from the Route 30 side of the West River, or from State Forest Road.

Caution tape has been strung on both sides to keep people from wandering to the edge of the huge chasm left when a giant black culvert, installed to handle water from the Fair Brook, was washed downstream by the floodwaters.

The culvert, easily large enough to accommodate most SUVs, now is a twisted, monster-like mass.

That culvert disaster is town business, Dezendorf said, adding that he will work with the state Agency of Transportation on several rebuilding projects, as well as with the need to remove sediment and gravel from many of the town’s transformed streams and brooks.

Newfane Selectboard Chairman Dennis Wiswall said the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has temporarily suspended its rules regarding the dredging of stream beds, but workers and contractors must report whatever work they’re doing.

Dezendorf said Townshend is not after gravel, but its ancillary usefulness does not escape his attention.

As for other West River Valley towns, Wardsboro is improving, and Jamaica can’t seem to catch a break.

Warner Manzke, assistant fire chief in Wardsboro, reported on Monday morning that all parts of his town were accessible, as temporary roads have been constructed, principally for emergency vehicles.

Manzke wasn’t entirely sure how many houses had been lost, but thinks it was five. He also said power had been restored for everyone.

As of Friday, Jamaica had lost seven houses, the last one as a result of an intense storm the night before in the village of Rawsonville, according to Paul Fraser, the town’s emergency manager.

A flash flood and mudslides caused the new damage to the house and to Route 100, just as the town was recovering from Tropical Storm Irene.

Most of the roads are passable, as of Monday afternoon, but town officials are asking visitors to steer clear of Jamaica until roads are in better condition.

Newfane, including the villages of Williamsville and South Newfane, was accessible in all directions by Monday at noon. Some roads are described as “passable,” and some are passable only to four-wheel-drive vehicles and emergency equipment.

Wiswall said that, in the immediate future, connections will be made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A conference call was scheduled for Tuesday morning in preparation for a kickoff meeting for the whole county next week.

Wiswall said people should know that FEMA has two roles: one for individuals, and the other for everything else. “The first and most important thing people should do is register with FEMA, online or at the skating rink [in Brattleboro.]”

He also reported that State Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, made arrangements for AT&T to provide 80 cell phones and chargers to local residents. The phones come with a 54,000-pound mobile tower parked to maximize cell service.

Those wanting a phone may contact officials in Newfane or Williamsville town offices. The phones will be turned on for a month. After that, residents can return the phones or create a contract with AT & T.

Wiswall thought three or four houses in Newfane had been lost, and that another 14 or 15 had suffered severe damage. He urged residents to pump water only when wearing a mask, to stay out of the water altogether and, to be cautious, to test drinking water. The town will receive test kits this week.

Some safety gear, such as masks, has already been handed out, and residents may check at the NewBrook Fire Station on Route 30 for information.

Williamsville hit hard

No town or village in the Valley has been transformed to any greater extent than Williamsville.

Soon after one drives through the recently restored covered bridge, a large workshop, just on the left off the Dover Road, can be seen dangling off the property over the Rock River.

John Williams was watching as workers were salvaging what they could from the building on the site of the old Grist Mill.

“My grandfather, also John Williams, owned the original grist mill,” he said, adding that it had been lost in the Hurricane of 1938. “It took the guts out of it,” he said. “I used to swim there, and my grandfather left a perpetual easement for children of Williamsville to swim there.”

Traveling down the Dover Road, one soon sees the top half of an elegant yellow house, now in a foundation of mud. The house had been swept hundreds of yards down the river. The bottom half of the house is missing.

Just beyond that house is another damaged home.

“It’s my mother’s house,” Frankie Wilson said, ”and I believe it could be saved, but they’re talking about tearing it down and putting the road through here.”

Across the street, there’s a large house belonging to Mel and Norma Shakun. They bought it in 1968, and have lived in full-time since 1976.

Norma Shakun loves the house so much, she calls it “the seventh wonder of the world.”

“The oldest part of the house dates from 1798,” she said, adding that it’s the section that stood up the best during the flood. Meanwhile, much of the salvageable furniture, including a handsome dark wood organ, has been moved out on the front lawn.

Inside, Mel Shakun goes through a huge file cabinet with a friend who is helping.

The Shakuns lived in Greenwich Village in New York on Bleeker Street. Mel was a business professor at New York University, while Norma taught French and English as a second language at several places.

They are cheerful and determined in the face of the almost certain loss of their Williamsville house.

“It’s the only choice,” Mel said.

Two other Rock River residents, artists Christine Triebert and Carol Ross, live just down the road, right by the green iron bridge over the Rock River heading toward South Newfane. They have lived in their home for 21 years.

“We live on the river,” Triebert said, “and we’re the lowest house off Dover Road. Our property is devastated, we can’t recognize it. But our house and studio have some damage but they survived. The garage is completely done with.”

Triebert, a photographer, said her work was on the top floor of the garage and she was hoping she could get some of it out.

“We were told to evacuate at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, and by 9:45 the river surrounded the house,” she said.


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

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