Tropical Storm Irene | Flood in Vermont
Within a couple of hours, the Winooski River receded. My 11-year-old son, Jasper, and I pulled on boots, grabbed shovels, and headed to Randall Street. We didn’t know who would be there or what we would find. We just knew that our neighbors needed help.
The first thing that hit us was the incongruous smell. Here in the middle of the mountains, it smelled like the sea. It was as if 10,000 years of evolution had occurred overnight, with water pulling back to reveal raw new earth. The pungent, fishy aroma soon mixed with the smell of oil and gas, the toxic slurry that had formed in numerous basements when oil tanks had floated loose and ruptured.
We arrived at the home of Madeline and Tom Drake and their three sons. They’d bought the house a year earlier. River water sloshed around my feet as I walked through the living room; it had reached the kitchen countertops when it crested during the night. Furniture had been tossed upside down, and kitchen appliances had floated and settled into random locations. Family photos were strewn about. An inch of dull-gray mud and silt covered everything, and the basement was still filled to the ceiling with river water.
Outside, Wendy Moore, a science teacher, was pushing mud off the porch and wiping down furniture, as calmly as if she were doing her regular chores. Within the hour, other teachers and community members streamed in. Tom and Madeline tried to assign tasks, but quickly gave up control of the situation to the throng of neighbors and friends. They removed sodden contents from the house and placed them outside to hose off, or to pile in ever-rising mountains of debris.
By noon, Randall Street was packed with people. Food and grills arrived to feed the volunteers, and sump pumps, power washers, and generators showed up on people’s lawns and were deployed. All of Waterbury seemed to be there, young and old. The noise of work–generators grinding, people shouting instructions, pickup trucks rolling in–became the new normal. The entire town had stopped what it was doing and turned all its energy to a single, monumental task: saving our neighbors.
By the next morning, with outside help only beginning to trickle in, our community’s own cavalry appeared: Harwood Union High School’s girls’ soccer team, trading their cleats for mud boots, arrived at one end of Randall Street, as the boys’ soccer team spilled out of cars at the other end. Preseason practice could wait. The athletes formed bucket brigades and mucked out cellars, all of which were filled with up to a foot of mud. In the days ahead, they would clean more than a dozen basements.
Vermonters were soon streaming into town to help. By Wednesday, a morning meeting at the elementary school to coordinate volunteers drew hundreds. Randall Street became so clogged with traffic that town officials went on the radio to ask volunteers to park elsewhere. I ran into a dozen or so members of the Green Mountain Club trail patrol, who literally came down from the mountains to help dig out homes.
“I don’t even know the people who are working so hard to clean my house,” Randall Street resident Kathy Mackey told me. As one group of volunteers were pulling up sodden floorboards, her husband, Scott, asked where they’d come from. “Ben and Jerry’s,” replied one of the men. The ice-cream factory is just a mile away and was undamaged. “That’s nice. What do you do for them?” Scott asked, assuming they were factory workers lending a hand. “I’m the CEO,” the man replied.
At the end of a long, hard day of helping a friend carry wet belongings out of his house, I felt buoyed by the progress we’d made. We’re Vermonters. We’re tough. We can do this. But as I drove home, I spotted an older fellow leaning on his shovel, head down, exhausted. A massive, wet pile of debris–his life–stood before him. I choked up. Vermonters were trying so damned hard, throwing everything at this. But this was so much bigger than we were. We needed help.
By Thursday, I was meeting volunteers from around the country on the mud-caked sidewalks of my town. There was a group of hammer-wielding men in dust masks and Southern drawls standing next to a van from their South Carolina church. Janet Darnall from Nashville was helping to cook meals for the community, while Gail Brunner drove from her home in Bergen, New Jersey, to distribute food.