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Cleaning up after the storm

Deerfield Valley towns pull together, one week after Irene

DOVER—On Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Irene’s rains swelled the Deerfield River into a recordbreaking flood.

Floodwaters hit many Vermont communities hard, churning up roads, leaving behind rocky riverbeds, drowning main streets in water and mud, and knocking out phone, electric, and municipal water systems.

East Dover lost power and phone as a domino effect of the storm’s impact on infrastructure in Newfane. Wilmington’s downtown was submerged under more water than the previous record flood during the hurricane of 1938.

Both towns suffered road damage that has hampered the recovery effort.

But the speed of the cleanup and recovery from this disaster has been described as tremendous, thanks to teamwork and hard work by town officials and employees and community members.

Dover Selectboard member Colby Dix said his town launched the Hurricane Irene Emergency Task Force to respond to the storm’s aftermath.

The task force has tackled issues like restoring utilities, repairing roads, communicating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and testing water.

“[Considering everything] Dover is doing remarkably well,” said Dix. He credits the Herculean effort of the town’s forward, albeit slow, progress to the road crew, engineering staff, business owners, community members, and volunteers.

Dover’s cleanup will prove easier than Wilmington’s, Dix thinks, because the water that flooded Dover contained fewer hazardous materials.

Unlike Wilmington, Dover didn’t experience a break of the sewer lines. The water flowing along Route 100 also didn’t come into contact with as many hazardous materials like propane tanks or Dumpsters.

Dix estimates that 100 percent of Dover’s roads “are passible” and about 60 percent “are repaired.”

Got gravel?

One challenge for many communities, said Dix, is repairing the roads.

Most towns don’t stockpile the hefty amount of fill or gravel materials to repair the number of roads washed away by Irene, he said.

To help assuage the towns scrambling to rebuild roads, the Agency of Natural Resources has temporarily relaxed its rules about where towns can take fill, allowing them to pull it from places like usually-forbidden streams.

Dover lucked out, Dix said. The town was at the start of its summer road projects so had more than the usual stock of building materials on hand. Mount Snow, owned by Missouri-based Peak Resorts, also gave the Dover road crew “blast fill” from the company’s Haystack project.

Verizon came through for the town by setting up temporary cell towers, said Dix.

It has taken engineering crews longer to return power and phone services to East Dover than to West Dover, said Dix.

The area’s damage, he said, has less to do with water that the fact that the majority of its cables run from Newfane, which sustained heavy storm damage.

Without phones, East Dover residents had no way to call for help, said Dix.

In response, Verizon assembled temporary, generator-powered cell towers. The Wireless Zone, a Verizon-affiliated store in Brattleboro, donated used cell phones to the town, allowing residents, at the minimum, to call 911.

Mount Snow pitches in

Dix describes Mount Snow’s support as “outstanding.”

The resort opened its Snow Lake lodge to valley residents displaced by the flood, and sent three excavators and operators into the community to help repair residents’ driveways, taking “a load off the town crew,” said Dix.

The company also canceled its Labor Day weekend Brewers Festival to give the community time to repair roads.

On its website, Mount Snow official wrote, “During times like these you learn quickly that a small state like Vermont has tremendous resources and willpower. We believe that there will be limited access to our valley by the weekend but are not confident that we have the resources to host an event as large as the Brewers Festival.”

Mount Snow told Brewers Festival-goers that even if the roads to the mountain opened, the resort’s food and beverage supply lines had essentially been cut off. In the comments section, people asked how they could donate their festival ticket to the recovery effort.

According to the Irene task force minutes, Mount Snow employees have also helped with the cleanup in Wilmington and East Dover.

“It’s a testament to [Mount Snow putting] the people and valley first” over profits, said Dix.

Please visit, but not just yet

Dix said the community and workers are “trying to regroup” and take a breather after an intense week. Last week, the Selectboard decided to ask volunteers and second-home owners to stay away from the valley to allow towns time to repair roads.

On Friday, the town announced in the Deerfield Valley News, “Officially, at this time we are strongly urging visitors not to come into the area unless absolutely necessary. The Dover Selectboard today voted to request that people do not try to come to the Mount Snow region this weekend.”

It’s hard to say, “we love you, but please stay away,” said Dix. “A lot of people have their hearts in this area.”

The decision also meant the Selectboard had to ask businesses to see fewer customers on a busy, profitable holiday weekend.

Despite taking some “hits” in public, Dix said he feels the town made the right decision.

He hopes the area will be open by this weekend, allowing everyone who calls Dover home, like second-home owners and young people who have left the area, to return and help with the cleanup.

Dix estimates about 2,000 volunteers have rolled up their sleeves or offered donations of money or business services.

On a personal level, Dix said he has learned the advantage of connecting the community through social media like Facebook and Twitter. He said people need accurate information and “not just run in circles” with rumors.

The speed of people’s responses to social-media requests has surprised Dix.

Recently, he checked the “needs board” at the temporary shelter at the Twin Valley High School and saw that people needed pet food. Dix posted the request on Facebook, and within an hour, community members walked through the TVHS doors with “armloads” of pet food, he said.

Social media’s success, however, has also presented Dix with a “management hurdle.”

Once a request has gone out, “it’s hard then to shut off the spigot,” he said, adding he has become more cautious about posting requests.

People can find information on the valley’s recovery process through the Facebook group Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Relief Support Network, or on a website that Dix set up.

According to Dix, the Dover area has a “diverse makeup,” from year-round residents, to second homeowners, to owners of small and large businesses, to those living in real estate developments.

Meeting the needs of these different populations and answering everyone’s questions will take time, he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll never do [this] again in our lifetimes,” said Dix, referring to knowledge he’s accumulating, like reviewing Dover’s tax rolls, during the town’s recovery effort.

Still, Dix feels the town is moving in a “positive direction.”

He said he has an “absolute appreciation and respect” for the outpouring of love and support of Dover’s diverse community — “regardless of the color of their license plate, who call this place home.”

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

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