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Stories of help, hope

NEWFANE—During the days following the storm, stories of help, hard work, and courage dominated many conversations in the West River Valley.

And the bigger the commonplaces about the strength of character and the decency and community Vermonters are said to possess, the truer the stories became.

Apart from the epic and often spontaneous efforts of road crews, fire department personnel, law enforcement officials, emergency management staff, and town officials of every stripe, people made connections with one another to make life easier for those stuck one way or another as a result of Hurricane Irene.

Christopher Pluff, grocery manager at River Bend Farm Market in Townshend, reported that a neighboring Newfane family on South Wardsboro Road, was marooned when the bridge over the brook on their property washed out. Friends were leaving them transportation that they could access on foot.

Meanwhile, on the Grafton Road in Townshend, an iron bridge over the Simpson Brook washed out, stranding Myrna Bills, a caregiver at Valley Cares.

To the rescue came friends, including her ex-husband Mike Bills. They spent several days bulldozing an area on her side of the brook and cutting down tall trees they used to straddle the water.

They finished late last week and, sure enough, at least three tree trunks are providing Myrna Bills with a slightly precarious footbridge.

“It’s scary,” she says cheerfully, noting that her kids think it’s a blast.

Walking from the front of Christopher Peet’s property on the Townshend Road in Grafton to the back, a visitor first sees a charming small cape with lavender trim, window boxes, hanging pots overflowing with pink flowers, and a tidy perennial garden.

But the rear of the property, just next to an ordinarily placid bubbling stream, is covered in fine whitish sand, turning the place into a facsimile of beach-front property in Bermuda.

The Peets’ small guesthouse, a one-room version of the main house, has moved about 100 feet from its foundation to a spot on top of the compost heap. And the sparely wooded area extending the property line is tossed with tires and other detritus common to floodwaters.

“My raised beds are now submerged,” Peet commented with some regret. He also pointed out his small garage-sized workshop, which, he said, was filled with two feet of mud and sand.

The Saxtons River (ordinarily across the road) “jumped its banks, came across the road, met up with the tributary behind the house, and surrounded the house with water,” Peet explained. “We evacuated at 10 or so on Sunday morning to [the home of] neighbors across the road.”

Peet, pointing out that his house remained dry, said that he was so much better off than his neighbor to the north, whose house was swept away.

Peet is a novelist and runs Tarpaulin Sky Press, a small-press publisher of fiction and poetry. He began early Sunday moving possessions, especially books, to the second floor but had little time to move much, as the water rose so quickly. He took his two cats across the road to neighbors up a hill, he said.

He also reported that his wife, Elena, had caught the last flight out of Logan Interntional Airport in Boston, before air traffic was halted, to visit her family in Cyprus. Apart from anxiety about the storm, he’s also lonely.

When things got scary at the neighbors, Peet was offered the use of a well-stocked guesthouse belonging to a neighbor, across the stream and up a hill. He said he watched TV endlessly.

He points to a small outdoor structure he’d built in his yard that escaped damage.

“Apparently, what you need to be safe is a tepee,” he said.

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

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