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Two years after Irene

As governor visits Wilmington, town looks back and ahead

WILMINGTON—A late summer sun cast its warmth across streets that two years ago Tropical Storm Irene had left strewn with mud and debris.

Wilmington’s Memorial Hall, its basement flooded by Irene two years ago, welcomed the clusters of people that returned to remember the flood that washed away so much and the town that weathered the storm.

“I don’t even remember what my office looked like with four feet of mud in it,” said Selectboard Chair Meg Streeter, whose downtown real estate office was flooded to the second floor.

“We get strength from working together,” Streeter said, adding that the region still faces economic challenges, especially given Entergy’s just-announced plan to close its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 promised heavy winds. People battened down the hatches. Instead, the storm dumped up to 11 inches of rain, transforming normally quiet streams and rivers into angry torrents which devoured riverbanks, trees, houses, and downtowns.

In Wilmington, the Deerfield River bottlenecked at the Route 9 bridge and surged over the span. The waters swamped the village, taking in almost all municipal buildings, including the Town Clerk’s office and the police and fire stations.

The floods also claimed lives. One was Ivana Taseva, 20, from Macedonia, who drowned when the Deerfield River swept her away.

A stone bench on South Main Street erected for Taseva reads, “Our greatest loss remembered."

Remembering and looking forward

“In Vermont we do things differently,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin to the crowd gathered in the Memorial Hall.

Shumlin recalled many ways Vermonters, despite their having stood knee-deep in mud, and deeper in tragedy, turned to their neighbors and asked, “How can I help?”

Shumlin also shared stories of National Guardsmen and FEMA staff who expressed amazement at Vermonters’ spirit and willingness to dig in rather than wring their hands in defeat.

He thanked the officials who helped their towns and the state rebuild. Included in his praise was Vermont’s Congressional delegation, which helped land millions in federal aid for storm recovery.

Praise also went to “the folks who had no title,” such as volunteers and second-home owners, Shumlin said.

“Even Meryl Streep showed up,” he said to laughs, referring to a Wilmington Fund VT concert in July, which featured musician Joan Osborne on stage and the Oscar-winning actress in the audience.

Two years after Irene, Vermont can celebrate because the state rebuilt stronger, Shumlin said.

This year, Vermonters must also remember those who are irreplaceable, he said: the seven Vermonters who died during Irene.

“We can’t give back the people that the storm took,” Shumlin told the audience.

Shumlin remembered “Big Mike” Garofano, who worked for the town of Rutland, and his son “Little Mike” Garofano, who died in the swift waters of Mendon Brook while checking on the Rutland City Reservoir.

Anthony Doleszny died in Brattleboro after falling into the Whetstone Brook. Doleszny was last seen riding his bike on Williams Street, in an area hammered by flooding.

Kevin Davis died in Ludlow in what his obituary in the Rutland Herald called a lake accident in Lake Rescue.

Vermont Air National Guard MSgt. Shawn Stocker of West Rutland died in September 2011 of a heart attack during storm recovery efforts.

Vermont Public Radio reported that William Elliott Flower, 86, of Woodstock died in September 2011 of storm-related injuries. According to his obituary in The Vermont Standard, the lifelong Woodstock resident worked at the U.S. Post Office for 37 years. He was appointed postmaster in 1962, succeeding his parents.

Shumlin acknowledged that many Vermonters, two years later, still struggle. “Think about the folks who will never get it back,” he said.

Some families are still waiting on FEMA to approve government buyouts of their beyond-repair homes, he said, adding that many employers are still navigating rate changes to their unemployment insurance because they had to lay off their workforce after the storm.

Some downtown economies, like Wilmington’s, have yet to bounce back to pre-storm levels, he acknowledged.

‘Multiple holes to fill...’

Ann Coleman, artist and gallery owner, agrees: “Business needs to be better,” she said.

Coleman’s gallery was swept away, art and all, during Irene. She rents temporary gallery space in town, and has spent the past two years working to replace her building.

The economy has multiple holes to fill, she said. The town has at least 10 empty storefronts two years later.

The town has approved the design of her new building. Coleman hopes to start construction in spring 2014.

Coleman says she was awarded monies through the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), a Community Development Block Grant Recovery (CBDG-R), the Deerfield Valley Rotary Club, and Wilmington Fund VT.

Those monies won’t cover the entire rebuild, however, and Coleman said she expects to hold a major fundraiser to close the gap.

Hell and high water

Local business owners Adam Grinold and Lisa Sullivan of Bartleby’s Books lent their memories to the day: Sullivan said on Aug. 28 the bookstore lost most of its inventory. But the next day, everyone got down to work.

“This is a community that is working hard,” she said, adding that “There are still too many vacant buildings.”

Sullivan said that this spring Wilmington earned recognition as a designated downtown through the state’s Downtown Program, participants of which receive tax credits, grants, training, and technical services.

The organization helping shepherd Wilmington’s downtown program is called Wilmington Works.

Grinold is co-owner of Wahoo’s Eatery and executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce.

A trench running across the Wahoo property dug by rushing water met Grinold as the floodwaters receded. Things looked bleak and felt overwhelming.

But, said Grinold, one friend became three friends, which grew to five friends, until 25 friends, a piece of heavy equipment, and a dump truck helped restore Wahoo’s.

The day Wahoo’s reopened someone donated $500 to help feed people, Grinold said. “So, on that day, we felt strong. We were successful because of our efforts together.”

Then Grinold noted firmly that Wilmington is still recovering. “Let’s keep our sense of urgency,” he said.

Private funding instrumental

State Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, the day’s emcee, reminded the audience that some $2 million in private funding also aided Deerfield Valley towns in Irene’s wake.

She listed among the funds created to aid families, small businesses, and municipal infrastructure the Wilmington Fund VT, Friends of the Valley, the Deerfield River Valley Human Web, the Wilmington Flood Relief Fund, the Dot’s Rebuilding Fund, and individual private donors.

“We’re now in the moving-forward stage,” said Manwaring.

The ceremony ended at what became a symbol for Wilmington’s devastation: Amateur footage taken during the 2011 storm recorded floodwaters surrounding Dot’s Restaurant, the iconic downtown eatery.

A massive rebuilding of the landmark followed, including fundraising through the help of volunteers, Preservation Trust of Vermont, and Friends of the Valley Foundation.

The building, or a skeleton of it, was moved off its foundation and sat for months under a green and white banner reading, “RebuildDots.Com.”

Last week, Patty Reagan, co-owner of Dot’s, said she and co-owner and husband, John, expect to reopen in six weeks.

The contractors are at the “detail phase,” said Patty Reagan. Cabinetry and such are going up now.

Shumlin said, “Dot’s is the symbol of all the business in this room,” and that Vermont knows how to get things done.

Shumlin, well known as a lover of Dot’s’ chili, asked the Reagans when the restaurant would reopen.

John Reagan joked, “Tomorrow morning.”

Later, Patty Reagan said, “Bring your own eggs.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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