• Wake of the Flood
     | August 13,2013

    PROVIDED A view of the new covered bridge in Quechee, rebuilt after Hurricane Irene.

    Aug. 28, 2011: Ari Sadri, general manager of The Pitcher Inn, in Warren, spends his morning tracking three different weather services.

    A tropical storm approaches, downgraded from a hurricane: Irene — Greek goddess of peace. She makes landfall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and will blow off the Massachusetts coast, leaving some rain and wind in Vermont, but nothing catastrophic.

    Given the prediction, preparations in Vermont are akin to that of a high-level, spring thaw flood.

    The staff at Riverside Farm, in Pittsfield, lays sandbags, in case the adjacent Tweed River jumps its banks.

    In Ludlow, Glenn and Donna Heitsmith, who bought Timber Inn Motel from Glenn’s parents in 1994, clear their yard and stack pool furniture inside a garage.

    White Cottage Snack Bar, in Woodstock, co-managers Norm Corbin and Scott Noble help their dozen-plus employees store 19 picnic tables into a space they believe is high and dry.

    Irene did not care.

    “We had no time to prepare,” said Megan Mahoney, marketing specialist for Simon Pearce, a high-end hand-blown glass studio, retail store and restaurant that attracts tourists daily, right on the banks of the Ottaquechee River in Quechee.

    “Irene was forecasted as a wind event, but then it got wet,” Mahoney said this past June from inside the rebuilt Simon Pearce production area, which customers now access via stairs from an old Alabama cotton mill — a post-Irene find. “Nobody anticipated it. The wind never came and, unfortunately, the water kept rising.”

    Two years after Irene, the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) estimates the storm caused $750 million to $1 billion in damage. To date, federal assistance for Irene totals $500 million, from all sources, and the state anticipates another $210 million; most of that will be used to cover eligible costs of relocating the state office complex and state hospital in Waterbury, where Irene flooded the downtown, according to Ben Rose, DEMHS mitigation section chief.

    To date, roughly two-thirds of public assistance funds have been used on roads, bridges and culverts that Irene damaged or destroyed, Rose said.

    By a recent June deadline, 58 employers consisting of 291 employees applied for state relief via the Vermont Labor Department, because they laid off workers after Vermont’s three federally declared disasters in 2011: April and May flooding and Irene.

    The average length of layoff for the vast majority of affected businesses was seven weeks, according to Vermont Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan.

    “Surprisingly and fortunately, no (Bennington) business suffered major disruption due to Irene,” said Stuart Hurd, Bennington town manager. “A few small businesses in the downtown lost power for a day, and several businesses along North Bennington Road were flooded by sheet flow of the Walloomsac River. But, as far as I know, other than cleanup of carpets at first-floor levels, there were no major disruptions and no (business) closures.”

    Irene, however, dumped 11 inches of rain on nearby Woodford. Rivers — as they did from central Vermont on down — rose by three to four feet in an hour.

    “Although our crews were out and ready, we were under the gun,” Hurd said. “None of us slept well that week.”

    Several parts of Routes 100, 100A, 9 and 4 washed out during the storm, and anyone that owned a piece of heavy equipment — private or commercial — followed suit by working to reopen roadways.

    “We’re not heroes,” said Craig Mosher, president of Mosher Excavating, in Killington, which became known as “Killington Island” after Irene eradicated a part of Route 4 and stranded residents.

    Mosher Excavating and other businesses moved rocks and dirt so that people could move on with their lives. “We were trying to do the right thing,” Mosher said.

    Irene’s hovering point in Vermont — from Killington over to Waterbury, down into the Mad River Valley and farther south into Battenkill and Woodstock/Quechee — still bears her fingerprints. Evidence abound that some boarded homes and businesses will come down; others were rebuilt according to assistance and insurance plans.

    “For the most part, I think ‘determined’ is the best word,” said Sadri, echoing sentiments behind the “I am Vermont Strong” campaign that Irene generated. “We’re Vermonters. Some were born here, and some of us moved here. Regardless, I think the common thread for everyone I’ve spoken to is the same — we’re Vermonters. We don’t sit around and wring our hands. We get our heads down and get to work.”

    Irene caused $2.5 million in damage at Pitcher Inn, which sits on Freeman’s Brook. The morning after, furniture was scattered everywhere. A foot-thick layer of mud carpeted everything. Shelves were toppled. Sadri said, “It was as if James Cameron’s crew were videoing the wreckage of the Titanic.”

    As soon as Sadri got the nod to rebuild, he did. He had hired a local contractor within 24 hours of the storm — as 40 local volunteers shoveled mud and debris from his business — and, within three weeks, the guest rooms and upper-level restaurant reopened. The lower level reopened in December 2011.

    “We are still finishing repairs from Irene, and it will be some time before we are completely mended,” Sadri said. “The most important thing I got from Tropical Storm Irene is gratitude. In so many ways, we are incredibly fortunate. No one was killed or injured. We didn’t lose a home. The things we lost are just things — business assets, as opposed to baby pictures and family treasures.”

    Pitcher Inn was about half full when Irene hit. Guests were evacuated. There were more complicated variables for Lee Ann Isaacson, operations manager at Riverside Farm.

    Aug. 28, 2011, was the last day of wedding weekends at Riverside Farm, the center of a unique destination wedding experience that also has lodging and a separate general store under its umbrella. As the store staff readied to cater the farewell brunch, water raged less than a foot below the covered bridge on Tweed River Drive.

    “Instead of pulling staff, I shut down the event,” Isaacson recalled. “We blew out candles, unplugged everything and asked all those that were not staying on the property to leave immediately. From there, I went back to the store and sent home staff that I knew lived far away. Within 20 minutes, we were flooded out with roads gone on both sides of a one-mile stretch.”

    About 60 guests were stranded. For five days, three Riverside Farm staffers slept in the back of the store, lived in borrowed clothes, and fed anyone who needed it. Riverside Farm became a central communications point of sorts, Isaacson said, but the entire property sustained significant damage.

    “As a destination wedding venue, with many events booked and committed, there was no option but to begin immediate repair, all of which was done out of pocket,” Isaacson said. “There is no insurance coverage for what is deemed an act of God, nor is there federal funds for the work on commercial properties. The General Store was reimbursed for its’ lost product only.”

    Riverside Farm “is still going strong,” Isaacson said, but when Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in 2012, “everyone did what I call a double lock and load, and waited for the worst.” Vermont was spared, but Sandy’s destruction still picked at the emotional wounds Irene gave Isaacson.

    “I still can’t look at the photos or the video of the Irene flood,” she said. “I have been through earthquakes and hurricanes, and Irene gave me a new respect for Mother Nature and her strength.”

    Glenn Heitsmith shares his fellow business owners’ gratitude, but five of his nine damaged, ground-floor rooms at Timber Inn Motel are still not restored, due to insurance processes. Irene also damaged his family’s on-site home and motel office.

    “The insurance game leaves a bad taste when the time comes to make a claim,” he said. “Nearly two years after Irene wrecked the place, Timber Inn Motel has come a long way, but still has far to go. Hopefully, things will be back to normal before the next flood hits.”

    Sitting with Noble in June, inside White Cottage Snack Bar, Corbin offered a tongue-in-cheek plan for another Irene-like event: “If it ever happens again, we’ll just open the doors and windows and go for the path of least resistance.”

    White Cottage opened in 1957 and was damaged during a 1973 flood, but not like during Irene, which washed White Cottage’s safely stacked picnic tables downstream and destroyed the business. The White Cottage marquee was leaning against a tree four miles away, in a base of mud, still in tact, at Billings Farm.

    The new White Cottage building has the same footprint, but it’s 25 feet farther from the river in one direction, and 35 feet in another. White Cottage reopened in May 2012 to an “epic summer,” Corbin said: “People were hanging out in the yard like it was a state park. The community has been so supportive, but if this place were lost, the town would be lost.”

    To the left of the production area at Simon Pearce, where Irene poured nine feet of water inside the building, there is a dimly lit room that contains four photos, taken after the storm. In one picture, Production Manager Bill Browne sits on a mud-covered rubble pile at 2:30 p.m., Aug. 29, 2011. He is wearing a pair of plaid shorts, a dirty pair of Asics running shoes and total despondence.

    Browne and Simon Pearce, company founder, were the last two left in the building, “watching the sinking ship,” Browne said in June, as tourists leaned over rails and watched his glassblowers at work.

    “Simon was just quiet,” Browne remembered. “He was concerned yet thinking about what to do next.”

    In addition to the glass-blowing studio, Simon Pearce lost a kitchen, wine rooms, a glass floor and its hydroelectric power system. Staff cleaned all the mud-covered glass by hand.

    “I think that, like a lot of businesses affected by Irene, we rebuilt to enhance the customer experience,” Browne said. “We have a cleaner production facility, handicap access — for the first time — and room for future growth. After all the pain, we think we came out well on the other side.”

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