Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Irene’

The day after, Vermont residents watch in shock as water threatens the dam in Windsor

Every American who was alive at the time remembers where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963.  We remember, too,  exactly where we were on September 11, 2001.  And for Vermonters, we remember the day Irene came to town.

One year ago today, we were hauling in deck chairs and taking down dead trees in our little wood, preparing for the high winds that were predicted to be heading our way as Hurricane Irene barreled up the east coast.  The big winds never really amounted to much, but it rained.  and rained.
Vermont is  small state with a big body of water on either side: Lake Champlain to the west and the mighty Connecticut River to the east.  The lovely Green Mountains run down the middle of the state, and hundreds of beautiful streams flow down the mountains in all directions, draining away snowmelt and rainwater into the larger rivers and out to the ocean.  Vermont’s 250 towns lie along these streams, roads following the natural course of the green valleys.  When the rains of Irene hit, our already soaked landscape couldn’t absorb another drop, and the streams were overwhelmed with the torrential run-off that tore through every village and took away roads, forests, bridges, houses, farmland and the face of Vermont.  On August 28, one year ago, we were aware of the rain pelting outside, but had no idea of the magnitude of the destruction that was going on down the road.

Water Rising

Residents watch as their home washes away in Killington

Hillary Mullins, a writer from Bethel, VT, posted an article in an online local newsletter, Seven Days, describing her Irene experience.  I’ve shortened her essay for my post; you can read her full essay here.


When Irene first arrived — not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm — she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and, yes, it came steady, but around here we’ve all seen rain like that before.  A thunderstorm hits, creating a flash flood in one area.

But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the river that runs through our village, we didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet. We didn’t know what could happen if all those little waters — not just some here or there — began to rise….

A cubic foot of water weighs a little over 60 pounds, and 60 pounds on 60 pounds countless times meant the beast was unleashed and the waters were going where they wanted. Two miles up Gilead, the brook was the size of a river by noon, and what once was road became river, and what once was meadow became gully, 30 feet wide, all churning water and torn-up trees.

Finally, around midafternoon, I heard the news that Gilead was flooded and that, over on the other side of the River Street Bridge, they were flooded, too. But still I didn’t understand… I called my brother. He was working a long weekend shift at a milk plant up in St. Albans. His road home, he said, was supposed to flood later on that night.

“I’m on ’til nine,” he said, “but guess I’ll leave at eight, seven-thirty if I can.”

“Why not leave now?” I asked. “It’s only milk.”

Then I called to check on my two friends who live in a house this side of the River Street Bridge, the town side. When they didn’t pick up, I worried, but I didn’t panic. I decided I would do some cooking and try them again in a little while. I didn’t know that already, just a few miles down the road, a husband and wife had been running through their barn, desperately trying to unhitch their cows as the river came pouring in, trying to move the animals — many of which they’d raised from calves — to safety. Twenty-five were swept away by the water. Somebody downriver saw one go by.

I didn’t know, but all over town, all over whole swaths of Vermont, the same thing was happening: streams and brooks and rivers swelling to huge and terrible dimensions, churning like furies through the landscape and taking everything in their path: trees, roads, houses, trucks. Toys, tires, sofas, stoves.

Me, I was making ratatouille. Slice the eggplant, salt it, let it stand…I tried my friends over on River Street a second time. No answer. I sliced the squash, the onions, the garlic. Put in basil. And then, just as it was getting dark, the power went out.

I brought the emergency candles out, made sure I had matches on hand. I called my brother. “Just pulling into the driveway!” he said. “I’m home.” I went out.  This is when I began to know. But it was just a start. A few hundred yards down the sidewalk, I looked north through the trees, down onto … the kids’ playing fields, a large stretch of land. The ball and soccer fields weren’t there. Only lake was there. And I could not see where that lake ended…But, those fields were not a lake: They now were part of the river, and all the river was moving, and, though I didn’t know this because I couldn’t see it from where I stood, over on the main road north of my house, that river was running through the place we call the Dented Can Store and running through the plumber’s shop behind it, and running through the house of the woman who manages our post office; the river running a quarter of a mile beyond its usual banks through the fields and over the road and onto the other side, coursing through house after house, overtaking even the front row of the trailer park, shoving people’s trailers right off their moorings. And those people were lucky. Somebody else’s trailer washed away. Folks over on the other side of town saw it go under the River Street Bridge.

The next morning, the morning after the flood, was strangely lovely, a perfectly sunny and soft, end-of-summer day. All over our town, people were waking up and seeing what would have to be done. Roads and sidewalks and driveways were gone, entire fields layered under two feet of mud. This side of the River Street Bridge, their house thankfully spared, my friends were shoveling soggy bedding up out of the goat pen. On the other side of the River Street Bridge, neighbors were lining up to help the people whose places were wrecked, carrying out chairs and tables, armfuls of coats and books.

So far, the recovery bill is $733 million.  And we’re still rebounding, all over the state.  There are still many in temporary housing, farmers who have lost their livelihood, some roads still unpassable.  Repairs on both of our local covered bridges won’t be completed for another 12 months.  We have to drive a long way around to get into certain parts of town.  But one of the things that made the tragedy of Irene remarkable was the way that communities, in every part of the state, pulled together.

Our Covered Bridge


There were many towns completely cut-off from the outside world; isolated islands, every road in or out was washed away, power and phone lines gone.  One such town tells its story, as Marion Adams, an Emmy nominated videographer and resident of the little town of Pittsfield,  reveals how the tragedy changed her home town and the people in it, in her documentary entitled Flood Bound.    Along with 36 residents of Pittsfield, she tells the story of rallying to overcome adversity, the building up of a community, of how isolation and ancient grudges were healed in the aftermath of the storm.  It is a very personal, compelling story — the result of a community pulling together, described as “the best kind of disaster you could have”.  As neighbor unselfconsciously helps neighbor, the final comment on the tragedy, in the words of one local resident,

If humanity could be like this, there would be nothing wrong with this world.”   Indeed.


((The documentary FLOOD BOUND was aired last weekend on Vermont Public Television,and is currently only available on DVD,   but THESE CLIPS are certainly worth watching!))

ONE YEAR LATER, and now another hurricane, Isaac, is bearing down on New Orleans, having already lashed Haiti, leaving devastation in its wake.  I struggle, maybe like many of us, with the images of the horror of so many tragedies on our planet.  And struggle, too, maybe like many other Vermonters, who might just be a little bit self-congratulatory about our own heroic response to our own flood trauma, and squirm when we must ask ourselves “Who, really, is my neighbor?”

 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied, “How do you read it?” 

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”    But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Tent City in Port-au-Prince after Isaac

Who is my Neighbor?


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Job said,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”      -Job 1:21

I woke up this morning convinced that I would be able to smile again. I believed, in God’s mercy, the Bell’s Palsy would be gone and the muscles on half my face, which haven’t worked in 17 months, would be supple again, and spontaneously reflect the inner me to the outside world. The real me, a joyful me. Because we prayed last night. Real prayer, Holy Spirit prayer, boldly-approaching-the-throne-of-grace-in-faith-and-obedience prayer, laying on of hands with anointing by the elders prayer. But, no. The right half of my face is still twisted and unresponsive this morning, my eye still unblinking.

I know there is a temptation to question God – Why? Why me? Didn’t we pray right? Didn’t You promise?

Yet I find that my disappointment doesn’t translate into REAL doubting. I find my Hope and Faith stubbornly connected to something deep that I cannot name. Something deeper and more real than this life.

Our lovely Vermont is slowly getting back on its feet again after Hurricane Irene. Or, rather, back on its roads, which in Vermont is the same thing. The roads connect us, small towns and villages, through the green hills and wandering valleys. Crews have been working around the clock, dump trucks full of rock from the granite quarries rumble through town, going where the commercial trucks are temporarily prohibited from traveling, in order to drop their load at the feet of the giant yellow excavators. These in turn maneuver the great chunks of rock to rebuild the vanished riverbank and provide the foundation for a new roadbed. We were told initially that it would be months before the road from here to the NY border would be passable again, but this morning JR had to go into Rutland/Fair Haven, and the road was open all the way – jerkily and still one lane in many spots – and it has only been three weeks!  We rejoice!

For three weeks ago, Vermont was stripped bare, in too many, many places. Charming brooks, streams and rivers turned into raging brown torrents, scalping fields and woodlands. Rambling cornfields were laid flat, buried in thick muck and mud. Trees, large and small, were ripped away and smashed up against old wooden bridges, carrying them away in the deluge. Trestles, farms, bucolic valleys, erased. The pretty calendar-face of Vermont was changed, despoiled, and her lovely smile was gone. Quiet and peaceful pastoral scenes were replaced with ravaged miles of muck and debris; and the thick, choking smell of wet clay, in your mouth, in your nose… Constant sunshine seemed to mock her destitution, paralyzing for a moment our connection to what we had known, what we had taken for granted. Vermont suffered her own case of Bell’s Palsy.

For Vermonters depend on Vermont, it is part of what makes us, well, us. Losing her face is like losing her soul. At the same time, this disaster revealed something truer, deeper. The soul of her people. And her healing is happening, right here before my eyes. Power, communication and access restored; the newly homeless provided for; mud and debris being hauled away; grants and loans for reclamation and re-building made available, including folks to help with the process; businesses rallying and re-opening for the autumn tourist season; neighbors gathering with music, food and festivities… Yes, healing is happening. Vermont’s true face is being seen.

I continue to hope and pray that my face may be healed. And in the midst of my frustrations and loss I am slowly making friends with a deeper me, a face that the world may not see, but that I am coming to know. Standing in the aftermath of the devastation from Irene, confused and angry, I had to remember the words from Job: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  What I see around me, this life, is not all there is. Indeed, it’s not even the most important part of what is. I have learned this with my face, and I see it in Vermont. Perhaps sometimes it takes separating us from what we take for granted as essential, maybe even a brutal stripping away, to allow a dearer, more naked truth to emerge. And isn’t this grace too?

Well may this body poorer, feebler grow!
It is undressing for its last, sweet bed;
But why should the soul, which death shall never know,
Authority, and power, and memory shed?
It is that love with absolute faith would wed;
God takes the inmost garments off his child,
To have him in his arms, naked and undefiled.
-George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, 1880

cleaning flood-mud caked canning jars from a friend's cellar

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We woke up Monday morning to a perfect blue and green summer day.  Sky was crisp with brilliant puffy clouds, the air fresh and crystal clear, the song sparrow and phoebe having their usual friendly morning conversation.  Our power was out, so it was that eerie kind of quiet, and the rumble from the brook was still loud, but diminished from the night before.  The night before it roared and thundered and sounded like a million freight trains as trees and boulders and debris catapulted through the swirling brown torrent, and our flooding wasn’t too bad.  But now, it was a beautiful morning.

We brewed our coffee with our camp stove, and then decided to drive into town to find cell coverage to make some calls.  Where our brook cuts out to the main road and passes through culverts and under bridges – that was when we got our first glimpse of the destruction.  The road was simply gone in some places, cars slowly making their way past on one lane.  A neighbor’s driveway bridge was demolished – twisted and torn with logs and uprooted trees smashed against it.  Parts of the road were still awash with the brown, mucky water.

In town, the mood was somber, neighbors wandered in shock.  Eyes were glazed, expressionless, quiet comprehension dawning about the enormity of the devastation as folks learned of friends and loved ones whose homes had washed away, businesses flooded and torn apart, beloved historic covered bridges destroyed, some communities totally isolated from the rest of the world with all roads in or out impassable and with no phone or power.  The bright, clear blue sky and fresh, fresh air seemed bizarre, like wait a minute, aren’t you paying attention??!

on Route 12, Woodstock

Hurricane Irene ripped through Vermont, a state with stately green hills, pristine valleys, contented cows, and laced with charming brooks, streams and rivers,  turning those bubbling brooks into weapons and wreaking violence on the landscape. Even in those communities unaffected by the storm, everyone is traumatized by the incomprehensible magnitude of the damage.  It will be years, and maybe not even in our lifetime, before Vermont returns to “normal”.

Vermont’s Public Utilities Company knew the storm was coming, and crews from Texas, Illinois, Missouri, and Ontario had begun arriving by Saturday.  Before the rains had stopped, convoys were heading out as the calls came in.  Some crews were building their own roads to access power lines when town crews were busy elsewhere.  Power across the state has been restored in record time, crews working around the clock.  Within hours, road crews and heavy equipment volunteers were creating detours, making roads safe and passable, re-moving debris.  There is a long way to go, but the cooperation, willingness and determination to pitch in and get Vermont up and running again is evident in every single community.

It is uplifting to read of the many, many volunteers and small acts of kindness extended to neighbors and to strangers.  Well, no one is a stranger this week.  A notice is posted, and the town turns out with work-boots, leather gloves and shovels to help dig out the flooded elementary school.  A family with two middle-school boys riding in the back of their pick-up truck spends the day distributing water in 10-gallon plastic containers.  A man from out of town shows up, and walks the street with his shovel over his shoulder, looking for someone that could use a hand.  A woman on horseback volunteers to carry a bag of needed medicine across a swollen stream where the road is closed, delivering to someone she has never met.  Neighbors and strangers arrive to help a farmer milk his suffering cows by hand, for without power he cannot use his milking machine on his large herd.  A man with a dirt bike offers to take a young man he doesn’t know to check on his grandparents who are stranded far on the other side of a road which is no longer there, without power or phone. A mail person walks her impassable eight-mile route on foot to deliver her mail.  A Pastor visits the Red Cross shelter set up in the High School gym, just to sit and listen.  The stories and tears tumble out.

Vermont is a plucky state, and we will rebuild, and we will move on.  Yet the trauma and tragedy and devastation all around are real and leave their mark.  Vermonters celebrate their stubborn independence and gritty determination of self-sufficiency.  Yet to survive this trauma requires cooperation and receiving help in the midst of vulnerability.  Vermonters are strong.  Yet my prayer is that out of this tragedy may come the kind of brokenness that leads to a yielded strength, the honest sort of humility that Jesus finds precious.  I’d like to share something my beloved JR wrote, as he absorbs the physical violence done to our beautiful towns, and considers the violence that has been done to his own soul many long years ago:

Over time, I have made an on-going choice to stay in Vermont despite the normal hardships associated with long, harsh winters and short growing seasons.  The difficulties are predictable and expected, and my capacity for resiliency and adaptation and creativity have been stretched and deepened in ways that softer locales would not call for.  But this…  This is an assault, and my simplicity and innocence have been violated.  The sense of calm and rest that I draw from so deeply each late summer has been cut off in violence.  Suddenly, I am older in an unwelcome and surreal way, and my capacity to trust in old hills is shaken beyond counting.  Visible sorts of daily graces, the kind derived from living in beauty, have become grotesque.  It would appear that, if I am to again rest within at all, that Something more solid yet than Creation must be sought and found. 

Nickel Mines was a horrible and senseless violation of a beautiful and innocent community.  But there was a perpetrator with a face, someone who could be held responsible and then forgiven.  But this…  I don’t have access to the grace that comes from finding forgiveness, because there is no one with a face to be responsible or forgive.

The images and videos of the wreckage and loss are a graphic of damage already sustained over long years in the otherwise calm water of my soul.  What now is seen has been so, without exaggeration, for a lifetime.  When is something beyond repair, and who decides to make the call that others must then live with?

All the famous attributes of gritty determination and stoic pluck are enemies of what is being revealed beneath and within.  Ancient road beds are undermined, familiar ways of traveling are impassible, and a new and living way must be found – or else being an island, isolated and cut off, is a fresh and selfish choice; anger and defiance the only tenants.




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