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.