AP PHOTO The Whitcomb High School junior varsity softball team warms up before the first game at their repaired field in Bethel. In a community where homes and businesses were destroyed and, for many, the foundation of life shaken, the reopening of the fields and the repair of the others is an important sign that life is returning to normal.
BETHEL — The dugouts and the chain-link fence are new and the outfield grass is thin on the one functional softball field at the edge of a branch of the White River in the town of Bethel, but the field, normally used by the local Little League, is doing duty for the girls’ softball teams from nearby Whitcomb High School.
There is still a pile of wooden debris left after Tropical Storm Irene in August flooded the field under 25 feet of water, tore up the dugouts and left uneven piles of silt and other debris that made the fields unusable for fall sports, just days before school was to start.
In a community where homes and businesses were destroyed, the reopening of the fields and the repair of the others is a sign that life is returning to normal.
It’s more than softball and baseball for the town of about 2,000 people. The sports played by the 310 students in kindergarten through grade 12 are a draw for the entire community.
Some school teams have gotten outside help to get their fields in order. Others are playing the entire season on the road. Some schools even have to travel to practice. Whitcomb, playing in town, is farther along the path to normal than most, thanks to help from the volunteers.
“The work they did was amazing. Every weekend they were here. People who lived in Massachusetts would come up on the weekends just to clean the field,” said Abigail Dimario, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at the school located uphill and across Vermont Route 12 from the fields, as she warmed up for the third game on the newly repaired field.
The invisible wounds left when Irene overflowed the rivers that meet in their town aren’t far from the surface. Talking about the flood can still, sometimes, bring tears.
“The rain, it used to be relaxing and calming to people. Now every time it rains nobody knows what’s going to happen because the river rises so fast,” said Abigail, who threw her arms around one of her friends who started to cry while talking about the flood.
“It will be devastating if it happens again because it’s just going to come back worse.”
Similar scenes are playing out across Vermont in the communities hit by the flood. Many municipal and school athletic fields are in flat, low-lying areas along rivers and streams that were overwhelmed by Irene. The Federal Emergency Management Agency received 29 applications for a total of $736,000 to help repair damaged fields and community trails from near the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border.
“Getting them back out on the field brought back a sense of normalcy in the community,” said Bob Johnson, the associate executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, which oversees high school sports in the state.
In Montpelier, where the fields were flooded last spring as well as during Irene, it’s estimated the total cost of repairing the Dog River athletic fields will top $100,000, expected to be paid for by the federal, state and local governments. But it will be next year before players in the summer softball leagues are back and probably the fall of 2013 before youth soccer leagues return.
The silt has to be cleared or tilled into the soil, the lights fixed and the field graded and seeded. Then there’s the time it will take for the grass to grow, said Montpelier Recreation Department Director Arne McMullen.
Back in Bethel, school athletic director Willy Walker had been on the job two weeks when Irene hit.
“Really it took me a week or so to come to grip with the enormity,” he said. “You are surrounded with all these other real life tragedies from the storm then you come back down to this huge mud pit that once was the gem of the town and you just couldn’t believe it really happened.”
But within four days of the storm they had the soccer teams practicing on a small field behind the school. The nearby town of Randolph let Bethel use their fields for home games. And they started the repairs.
“Every day was a little better,” he said.
When the water receded, the varsity girls’ soccer and softball fields were covered in 18 inches of silt. (The boys’ fields, farther from the river, weren’t hit as hard.) They scraped 92 dump truck loads of silt from the fields and carted off 11 propane tanks, two hot water heaters, even a boat.
Walker said the $75,000 to $80,000 repair costs were paid with a combination of assistance from FEMA, flood insurance, state help and local fundraising.
The softball and girls’ soccer fields have been repaired and await grass seed. They might be ready in the fall, if not next season. Meanwhile, the girls’ softball field is doing double duty, it’s normally the youth baseball field. Adult softball leagues will this summer on a temporary field.
“We’ve made do,” said Denny Stearns, a former boys’ varsity baseball coach at Whitcomb whose daughter is coaching the school’s junior varsity girls.
The day after the flood, Stearns said he never would have believed they could be back on the fields so quickly. “We were lucky. We’ve got a good athletic director and he’s been working his butt off down here.”
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