Friday, September 2, 2011
Vermont has been ravaged by Irene's flooding. Many homes have been washed away. Others are filled with debris. Roads are destroyed.
For my wife and I, the horror started around 11:00 AM last Sunday. As the rain kept coming, harder and harder by the minute, the now roaring stream parallel to our driveway clogged the nearest culvert with rocks and clay. We then heard an enormous SNAP! as the water broke through the bridge and poured over the road. Further up the hillside, the stream threatened to break through the bank, which would have sent it straight toward the house. Luckily, it broke the other direction, swallowing up the road along its new path. All we could do was watch as the stream and the river below continued to rise throughout the day. We held each other that night, trying to sleep, the sounds of churning rocks and boulders and breaking trees echoing in the darkness.
On Monday, we took in the scene. We couldn't believe what it looked like outside our house. A pile of rubble blocked our driveway. Our road was a riverbed to the left, a gaping hole to the right. Trees and rocks littered the ground in all directions. We thought we had it bad. The power was out, and there's no cell service at the house, so I decided to walk down the road to a cell-zone, over two miles away. At least, I thought I would walk down the road. I ended up bushwhacking through the hillsides to avoid the ravines that now stood where the road used to be. The road was gone. Sure, little stretches remained, but not many. Our neighbor's barn was missing, swallowed up by the re-routed river. Further down, a cottage was gone, swept away as the river claimed the path that the road used to take. I came to one spot with no outlet, the river taking over everything. I scurried across a downed tree acting as a bridge over the water. I met some more people, gawking in disbelief at the destruction. An elderly woman gave me her son's phone number, hoping that I might be able to call if I found service. I continued through the wooded hillsides, avoiding the mess of debris and power lines below at river/old road level. I met up with more people at the next ravine. A house was missing. There wasn't even a trace that it had been there. I continued on. Another blocked path. Another tree-bridge across the river. I finally reached cell phone range.
I called our families. The entire state was in the same situation. I was completely shell-shocked. Vermont had become a legitimate disaster zone. It was an eerie feeling, really. Things like this happen around the country and the world all the time, but nothing can prepare you for what it feels like to join that list. It's like a slap in the face that aches and aches and aches until the pain starts to take over.
I hiked back to our house. I tried to explain to my wife what had happened, but you can't explain that type of destruction. We decided to hike out. We each packed a bag and set off. We retraced my path. I took her into the hills. I took her across the downed trees. I pushed her in ways that I never should have. The path was too hard. It was more than a hike, it was a survival journey, and we weren't prepared for it. After walking for hours, we turned back, needing another plan. After all, the main road was gone too. We'd learned that. Our entire town was isolated from the rest of the state. Nobody in, nobody out.
We spent that evening and all of Tuesday meeting with people on our road. We talked about supplies, who had what for food, generators, water, etc. We were meeting some of these folks for the first time. Many of them were elderly couples, and they all were extremely generous. It always amazes how people can come together during a crisis. One couple had a generator and satellite internet, so they were able to send e-mail updates to all of our families. That was a huge help. At least our parents knew that we were still safe.
Luckily, we had another outlet.
On Wednesday, we decided to hike out of our road in the other direction, through an old logging area, to the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. The Inn at Long Trail was our destination. The wonderful people there were taking in anyone who could get there. We loaded our packs with as much as we could possibly carry. Thankfully, we own nice hiking boots and trekking poles, which really saved us along our route. Again, we had to bushwhack around a couple of ravines where the road used to be. We reached the AT and headed into the mountains. It was a difficult hike, especially since we were carrying heavier packs than we had ever hiked with before. As we made our descent toward Killington, the air was filled with strange noises. Helicopters buzzing overhead. Beepers and rotors of work trucks and heavy machinery. When we finally reached the road, my wife flagged down the first car we saw. The couple was confused, not really sure if we were telling the truth or not. They had heard our governor say on TV that no one was still isolated. He was wrong. Who knows how many people were still in the same situation as our neighbors? At least the people with the car were nice enough to give us a ride to the Inn.
The people at the Inn at Long Trail were so gracious. They gave us a room and a great meal, and they wouldn't let us pay for anything. It was the same for a half-dozen other couples that had managed to get there. We then called some of the emergency numbers from some of the surrounding towns, trying to share information and organize. I think our information helped plan a Red Cross drop-off closer to our still-isolated neighbors. People didn't realize that so many elderly couples lived on our road.
On Thursday, one of the Inn employees allowed us to join her as she evacuated out of the area. All of the roads were closed for repairs, but the emergency personnel agreed to open Route 4 toward Woodstock for an hour. It was a dangerous trip. The road was rarely fully-intact. Sometimes we were in the right lane, sometimes the left, and sometimes we were straddling the double-yellow. The entire area was devastated. Houses buried in mud, farms covered in rubble, bridges missing, and foul dust everywhere. The truth of what had happened was finally setting in. I was sick to my stomach, dizzy.
We met our parents at a gas station along the route. It was emotional to say the least, but it didn't last long. Now that we were outside, we immediately sprang to work. We made calls to more emergency personnel, bought a couple of shopping cart loads of supplies (food, water, baby wipes and formula), and we brought it to one of the relief stations. We then visited with fire and rescue workers, sharing more information. We were interviewed by a reporter from the Associated Press, voicing our extreme disappointment that some elected officials were downplaying the severity of the situation. We then e-mailed and called more people, trying to keep awareness high.
Today, I feel weird. I know that's a generic term, but I don't have a word for this sensation. I feel lucky to be safe, but, at the same time, utterly helpless. We may not be able to access our cars or belongings by road until after winter. It's that bad. Our cats are still stuck there. We put out a heap of food. We're planning to hike back in to get them in the coming days. We can't get back in the way we came out right now, and there aren't enough roads intact to get close from the other direction yet.
I guess all we can do is keep advocating for our neighbors and help others that we can reach. I'm heading to a flooded housing development to clean up debris.
That's all for now. Much, much more someday.