Love to Colorado

Dear Colorado, 

Here in Vermont, we send our love, support, sympathy, empathy, and help to those of you affected by the recent flooding. Tropical Storm Irene struck us in 2011. It’s tragic and shocking and something none of us would wish on anyone, anywhere. To see your homes destroyed; your roads washed away; to see your family, friends, even strangers in your own state suffering – it’s unlike anything else. It’s something that none of us understand until it’s our own backyard.

Once the shock fades, recovery begins (well, sometimes it’s concurrent), but you will survive because you are strong. We are Vermont Strong. And you are Colorado Strong. You do what you have to do. Take it hour by hour, day by day, task by task. Join with your neighbors. Accept help. Offer help. Take a deep breath. Know that everything you do is getting you closer to recovery. You will recover. It will take time, and for a while there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel. But you’ll get there. We promise. We know, because we’ve been there. It was two years ago, and there are still lingering recovery tasks, but overall we’re  a stronger state.

And you can lean on us for support. Our state officials and state agencies are already connected and talking about immediate response, followed by long term recovery. We’re two states so far away from one another, but we want to help. We feel your pain. Everything will be okay. You can do this.

Love, Vermont

Irene: Two Years Later

August 28, 2011 was a day that many Vermonters will never forget. It’s etched in memory, vividly due to its recentness and yet vague in the sense of lifetimes ago. Tropical Storm Irene changed the landscape of Vermont and altered the lives of communities and individuals. Rain fell all day as Irene worked her way north. A snowy winter and wet spring left the ground overly saturated, unable to handle the incredible amounts of rain flowing in the mountains and into our rivers and streams. By nightfall, Irene had slammed and flooded more of the state than anyone imagined. Vermont’s villages and towns are settled in linear fashion along waterways and in valleys. The terrain is such that we have thousands of bridges in such a small state. While beautiful, the landscape leaves Vermont vulnerable to flooding. Irene took advantage of that fact, flooding towns, overtopping river banks, filling houses with feet of muddy water, washing away entire roadways and sweeping bridges off their abutments. It was devastation on an enormous, unbelievable scale, surpassed only by the flood of 1927 (history and photos).

This was the type of event that you see in the media and cannot possibly imagine it being your own town or home. That is, until it is your town and your home. And even then, your first reaction is: what in the world are we supposed to do now? What do you do when your house is flooded with river mud, sludge, and dirt? Well, you let the water subside and then pump out the rest of the water. And then cleanup begins. River mud is disgusting; it gets in every nook and cranny. Unless it’s a completely washable object, you might not want to keep it. Dried mud – dust – flies through your windows and the dust settles on everything. After dealing with the flood cleanup, I never wanted to be dirty ever again, nor swim in the Winooski River.

At the time of the flood, I lived in Waterbury, which was one of the hardest hit towns in Vermont. And my house was one of the least flooded in town, but the basement still filled with seven feet of water. The streets were covered in this heavy mud and garbage that people had to remove from their homes, with buckets and shovels. It was backbreaking work. Walking down the muddy sidewalks was an obstacle course, only not a fun one. The week following the flood was a week of cleanup for the entire town. I’ll never forget the volunteers (kind-hearted souls who were not flooded and could help others) who drove around food and drinks to those of us cleaning our homes. Green Mountain Coffee and Ben & Jerry’s, two big businesses in town, provided food and ice cream to the residents. It was a week of togetherness. People joined forces, organized and helped one another, even long beyond that first week. This was not unique to Waterbury; stories like this can be heard about almost any flooded town in Vermont.

Aside from the togetherness (Vermont Strong!), I will remember, always, the heavy-hearted feeling that I had as I traveled the state for work. My job included documenting the damage of historic bridges across the state, which took me to all of the flooded towns, seeing the aftermath of Irene at such a fresh, unique, sensitive time. Cleaning my house and dealing with my own matters seemed minimal compared to what others had to deal with, perhaps because they were in communities without as many resources or as much help, or because their entire house was destroyed. Driving through the Mad River Valley and the Route 100 corridor was difficult emotionally. Even though towns were recovering, the process was long, seemingly too long in some places, and it was heartbreaking. Slowly, most everyone visibly recovered, but even today there are empty, flooded properties with no occupants. It’s a visible reminder of the devastation for all. It’s still hard to see these places, knowing that some are still recovering and some people have yet to receive help, or just never knew what to do. And others were left without a home.

Thankfully, there are good stories to share, such as the reconstruction of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge and the businesses and residences that have been improved and are better than before the flood. Irene tested the strength of Vermonters, whether longtime residents or new residents, and we all came out stronger. We  all found friends and neighbors who opened their hearts and gave us time and care. Or we were inspired by the generosity and faith of others. I’m sure that I am not the only who learned that you do what you have to do, and that everything will be okay. Irene was cruel, but there was no option other than to get to the other side and recover. The process continues everywhere, but people and communities have come so far.

It’s been two years, and I might always cry when I hear Grace Potter’s Mad Mad River or watch the Rebuilding Waterbury film, but the tears are two-fold: heartbroken for everyone who suffered, but proud of Vermont for being so strong and inspiring, and proud to live here.

The Un-Covered Bridge

Have you ever seen a covered bridge without its roof (its cover)? How about without its joists, floor beams, deck and everything but the arch? How about this scenario with the other span (the other half) of the bridge intact?

It doesn’t sound like a common sight, and it’s not. However, you can see such an “un-covered” bridge in Woodstock, Vermont. Stop by the Taftsville Covered Bridge on Route 4.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge, as seen from VT Route 4.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge was damaged during the floods of Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011. What you cannot see from this picture is the failing stone abutment. Due to structural and safety concerns, the bridge was closed to traffic and then pedestrians soon after the August flooding. Unfortunately, the abutment continued to show signs of stress and failure, to the extent that it would have to be replaced.

Closed to traffic, but you can park off Route 4 and take a look (just don't cross any barriers or fences).

Because this particular site poses many obstacles (nearby buildings and power lines), but required immediate action in order to save the bridge, the Vermont Agency of Transportation made the decision to dismantle one span of the two-span bridge. This allows temporary reinforcing to be installed, prevents the bridge from being completely dismantled, and allows the abutments and pier to support the remaining weight of the bridge. For further stabilization, the abutment is supported with newly poured concrete (you’d have to catch a glimpse of that from the Quechee side of the bridge).

The central pier between the two spans. Only the arch remains.

Close-up view showing reinforcements installed (see new cables).

Additional reinforcements. The failed abutment (not shown) would be located on the bottom right of this image.

Looking east.

Looking northwest.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge, constructed in 1836, is one of the oldest covered bridges in the State of Vermont.  Originally constructed as a multiple king-post truss, the burr arches (the exposed arch you can see in the photograph) were added in the early 20th century. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and documented for the Historic American Engineering Record.

If Someone Offered Free Vinyl Siding

Note: This is going to get a bit lengthy, but if you are interested in my ongoing battle with insulation decisions, read on.

Last week, we had a free post flood assessment offered courtesy of Efficiency Vermont. The organization has really stepped up to help those affected by the flood throughout Vermont. Though I signed up beforehand, I heard more about the post flood assessment at the Button Up Vermont Workshop, and was under the impression that the assessment would address all sorts of flood related problems: moisture, mold, air sealing, insulation, etc. Although insulation wasn’t on my list of post-flood worries, I was eager to talk to someone about mold and cleaning my house and to hear about other energy efficiency measures for future reference.

I need to note that the contractor who visited my house was a subcontractor of – not an employee of – Efficiency Vermont.

Upon the contractor’s arrival, I summarized the flood damage and events for him, but what he really wanted to see was the basement. After I explained the water levels and what we did to clean the basement, etc., he looked around and asked if I would be opposed to spray foam.

SPRAY FOAM?  As if I wanted to talk about spray foam. However, I gave the contractor the benefit of the doubt and said that I am opposed to spray foam, but if he could convince me of the merits of spray foam, then I’d consider. This was a matter of understanding the product, not questioning his professional abilities. He didn’t have a great answer for me, but we talked about air flow and the space in between the first floor joists. (For reference, there is absolutely no insulation in my basement.) He said my basement was perfect for foam because it could be hidden and there wasn’t really an aesthetic to ruin; it’s not like I had a dry laid stone foundation. Aesthetics is only one part of my concerns.

The contractor mentioned that normally putting spray foam in a basement like mine – just between the joists, above the concrete foundation – would be about $1500. Hmm, that sounded like a good chunk of savings. I considered it a bit more, with caution. I said I had to talk to my husband about it. When I couldn’t reach him, I called my father-in-law, who seemed to be in favor of it. However, I was still not convinced (because I’m difficult like that).

In the meantime, the contractor said he would do a blower-door test. That was neat! If you’re wondering, our house is completely average for air leakage. While this was going on, I was frantically reading about spray foam online and harassing a few preservation colleagues for their opinions (thanks, Jen). Nothing I read about spray foam was beneficial to historic buildings. Nothing. Yikes! For starters, here is a paper from Historic New England.

Why so frantic? Well, it seemed like a decision that I had to make that day. Admittedly, I did not ask outright, but that seemed to be the case. Back to discussions with the contractor. He had said that either you insulate everything or nothing at all; you can’t insulate half your house if the other half is not insulated. I brought that up, figuring that my walls did not have insulation. Why should I insulate the basement, I asked? No good answer. He also told me that spray foam isn’t reversible. And he never mentioned anything about a vapor barrier.

Finally, Vinny and I had a chance to talk. I told him that something about spray foam just made me nervous (well, lots of things) even if it’s just in a few spots. I didn’t want to regret doing something later. The only thing that sounded good about this offer was that it would be absolutely free to us. Vinny, agreeing with my hesitation, said to me,  “If someone came around and offered free vinyl siding and installation, would you take it?”  Without skipping a beat I scoffed and said, “No.”  He replied, “There’s your answer.”

Good point. Doing something to my house just because it’s free, when it’s something that neither one of us feels comfortable with or has researched enough, would be a ridiculous decision. My main conclusion was that the 83-year-old house does not have any problems, but I change the air flow, it’s quite possibly asking for problems. Right? Why ruin a good thing and fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed? Before we decided on the amount of heat loss and cost and understand how this house works through winter, we shouldn’t mess with the system.

However, this particular contractor was focused purely on air sealing. To his credit, he did talk buildings with me and gave me much to think about. He looked in the attic and checked out the insulation there (currently 6″ of cellulose that possibly doesn’t extend to the eaves – yes, I am aware that it needs to be addressed). He was patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time when I sort of said okay for spray foam and then nevermind. Perhaps it was my own mistake, but I was not under the impression that this assessment would only be about air sealing. After all, you can’t air seal your basement and not consider the effects on or what is needed for the rest of the house.

If someone such as myself who is so vehemently opposed to spray foam (in my own house anyway) could waver a bit by the temptation of free work and materials, then surely I was not ready to make such an important decision without any warning ahead of time. I hate to think that others made rash decisions for their own buildings.

This is not meant to sound like a rant, but more to explain why I was probably the worst candidate for this type of flood “assessment.” I am grateful for Efficiency Vermont’s assistance to flood victims across the state and think overall they’re doing a great job. However, their sub-contractors on this job should be better informed.

The most beneficial part of the “assessment” was realizing just how much I need to study before making decisions about insulation. It was a good reality check for me as a new homeowner to think carefully through every major project.  But for now, I’m holding true to my anti-spray foam and air sealing, especially because the drafts of my historic house are no worse than a normal house less than half its age.

We can discuss other types of insulation after I read some more material. This graduate thesis by Sarah Elizabeth Welniak, Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings, seems like a good place to start. What else do you recommend?

Happy October

Whether you are enjoying Columbus  Day inside or out, at work or at home, I hope you have a lovely day. I’ve been painting my living room and am now covered in blue paint.

Traveling Route 100.

Waitsfield, VT.

In the Mad River Valley.

Some red foliage - my favorite!

In case you haven’t heard, our Vermont roads are indeed open. Some are slow going, but that’s what you want for foliage traveling. The towns are hoping for tourism revenue. Come visit and support Vermont as we rebuild and get back on our feet after the flood. Foliage is just about at its peak. It’s beautiful.

Mold Removal + Concrete

As you know, water or moisture can cause the most damage to buildings. Whether from a leaking roof or something as disastrous as a flood, water can be considered the root of all building problems. Water and moisture often lead to mold growth, sometimes in visible locations, but also in unseen locales throughout your building. One of the most important tasks after water damage is to remove all items from the building that have been touched by the water: sheetrock, insulation, rugs, furniture, everything.

Following the removal of flood water and then the removal of mud, we removed all items from the basement. It took days to remove all of the mud and over one week to get the basement to where it looked dry.  We washed our belongings, sanitized them, and have yet to return anything to the basement.

Now we are dealing with mold issues on the concrete basement walls, generally in locations at or below where the muddy water settled for a few hours. Originally we thought bleach would do the job, but it’s been a few rounds of bleach (one of those rounds was undiluted bleach!) and the white, fuzzy mold on the walls keeps appearing.

We have heard conflicting information, too. First, we heard that bleach would remove the mold and that the other products were all marketing. Then we heard otherwise. So, like a good homeowner and preservationist, I turned to my books and online resources. I learned that the chemicals in bleach are inactivated by organic compounds.

Darn. But, that explains why the white fuzzy mold keeps returning.

The concrete walls in our basement are certainly not of the non-porous variety. They are 83 years old and quite porous. In a handful of locations, I can see the aggregate that composes the concrete. It is not like today’s concrete, that’s for sure. Thus, the dirt and whatever else has migrated into my concrete walls is deactivating the bleach, and allowing the mold to grow.

We’re stumped.

All of the literature I have read, whether it’s from the National Trust or a university or any random website, simply talks about the importance of mold removal and safety precautions. The articles discuss the importance of drying out the basement and air circulation and a dehumidifier, of course. But, I need to know what to use in order to remove the mold and keep it away. I have yet to find a resource that mentions specific products proven to remove mold from concrete.

Can you offer a suggestion? What should we do?

I think our next step is to suit up and scrub the walls. But, with what? I’ll keep looking, but if you have an idea or even better – a proven solution – I would love to know.

Thank you!

Two Weeks Post Irene

It has been two weeks and a few days since Tropical Storm Irene ran across Vermont, taking a path of destruction. Whether affected personally, professionally or both, in a small or large magnitude, Vermont is overwhelmed and consumed by the aftermath. For the past two weeks, I’ve thought over and over that when you see such a disaster on the news or in pictures your heart goes out to those affected; it’s tragic. However, you cannot imagine how someone feels or how it really affects you unless it happens to you – unless your town is covered in mud, dirt and dust with debris on the curb, the smell of oil in the air, people wearing masks, houses evacuated and businesses closed. It is tremendous. Working in the world of transportation, the devastation is reinforced and real beyond the bubble of one’s own town. Travel is still slow going on some roads, sights are unbelievable, and resources are in need of documentation, recovery and protection. Recovering from this natural disaster will take years for some people, businesses and for the environment.

While property and roads and belongings have been lost, there is so much good that has come of this. Needs varied across the state; some towns like Rochester and Wardsboro were shut off because of road washouts. Residents needed water and food and prescriptions filled. Others were washed out of their homes. They needed a place to stay. Some needed help cleaning. Others needed someone to talk to.  Fortunately, some people were not affected – even in towns where others were devastated – which allowed them to help the flood victims. Monday morning, immediately after the night of flooding, people were already mobilizing relief efforts. The feeling of community across the state was nothing short of heartwarming and amazing.

My town was hit particularly hard by the flood, but it was wonderful to see everyone lend a hand in time of need. During that first week after the flood, most everyone in town  worked on flood cleanup. The streets were crowded and messy, and everyone seemed to be home. And amidst the chaos, volunteers and emergency services organized. Those unaffected brought water, food, and supplies to anyone working in town. Ben & Jerry’s drove around with free ice cream cones for all. Green Mountain Coffee donated free coffee to everyone. The local grocer donated hotdogs. Community dinners were frequent and free for flood victims. The generosity and citizenship exhibited were absolutely astonishing.

Yesterday I went for a run through town for the first time in a while, and found some streets to be deserted. I ran down one street on which no house seemed to be lived in right now. The river flooded the first floors of these houses. People are still working intensely on cleanup  there. Walls have been stripped to the studs. Dumpsters line the street. The sound of generators is frequent. On a street that was always filled with kids playing outside and neighbors talking or taking a stroll, it is eerily quiet. I wonder how long until people can return to their homes. That I cannot imagine.

There isn’t much more to say beyond this: Vermont was devastated (some places and people more than others); community and generosity is strong here; recovery will take time; people will need help for a long time. What you see in the news is no exaggeration.

Life is getting back to normal for me and my house; I was lucky with only a flooded basement and not a flooded house. I aim to be posting regularly again. And I will share what I’ve learned about disasters, preparedness and cleanup (albeit, some of it the hard way). After all, I don’t have options except to learn from this, to count blessings, to evaluated what I’ve learned and to carry on so I can help others who are still in need.

Friday Vermont Links

Today is the annual downtown & historic preservation conference (combined this year!) in Poultney, VT. The entire conference sounds like fun, but I’m most looking forward to the Streets as Places theme.

Some news from Vermont:

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation has awarded $186,000 in grant money for preservation and restoration projects throughout the state.

Lake Champlain has reached its record high water level and it seems as though the entire state is flooding. The Charlotte-Essex (NY) ferry is shut down due to high water levels. Rivers and lakes throughout the state are flooding towns across the state. This will create damage for all buildings and displace people and businesses for a time.  If you are aware of a historic building in danger, be alert, now and when the water recedes.

On the night of Sunday April 17, a fire broke out in the historic Brooks House on Main Street in Brattleboro. The five-story French Second Empire building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was home to many businesses and apartments; their fate is unknown at this time.

On a lighter note, the site of the University of Vermont’s first baseball diamond will be recognized on April 30 in the Old North End of Burlington.

Have you heard of the Checkered House Bridge project in Richmond, VT? The metal truss bridge is going to be widened. You can learn more about this unique project on its website.

In connection to Vermont and its tourism, what are your thoughts on covered bridge preservation? A Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch article seems to debate the fate and purpose of such a thing. A necessity? An obligation? Too much money? Would a state like Vermont, known for its covered bridges, think it’s a frivolous expense?

A Very Fine Appearance: The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton was released earlier this month. The book includes over 100 photographs from the Vermont infantry experience during the Civil War. Photographs were all taken by Brattleboro resident George Houghton. You can buy the book in hardcover or paperback through the Vermont Historical Society.

Happy Spring! Happy weekend!