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Tropical Storm Irene | Flood in Vermont

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.

I ran into Tino O’Brien at one house, where he was cutting away wet Sheetrock. Tino had come from Montpelier to help; 25 years earlier, he’d hired me as an instructor for Outward Bound, one of my first jobs out of college. I asked him why he’d come to Waterbury. “To be of use,” he replied with a gentle smile. Amid the din of hammers and generators, Tino recited part of a poem of the same name by Marge Piercy:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, / who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, / who do what has to be done, again and again … / The work of the world is common as mud …

On November 3, 1927, after days of soaking rain, the Great Flood swept down from the mountains and devastated Vermont, the largest natural disaster in state history. It claimed 84 lives, destroyed 1,285 bridges, scores of homes, and hundreds of miles of roads and railroad tracks. Waterbury was nearly destroyed, which is memorialized on Randall Street by a granite sign midway up a second-story window denoting the flood’s high-water mark.

Gleason “Gus” Ayers, was 10 years old when the 1927 flood forced him to flee his family’s Randall Street home in a rowboat. On August 28, 2011, he was once again evacuated from the home that his grandfather Orlo had built in 1892, this time helped by grandchildren wading through waist-deep water. “Well, this is second time we’ve done this,” the 94-year-old great-grandfather said as he evacuated to the same school where he’d sought shelter 84 years earlier.

I talked with Ayers in a Waterbury retirement home, where he was staying while his family repaired his flooded home. I asked him how a community recovers from such a trauma. “The way you get through it is one day at a time,” he replied quickly. “Stop worrying about the future. Take one day and do the best you can on it, and you know there’s another day coming. That’s been my philosophy all my life.”

I asked him what the future holds for his family and their home. He said that his four children had held a meeting the previous day. “Dad, we’re going to have Thanksgiving in there,” they announced. I asked him whether he thought that was possible. “All my life, we’ve had 20 to 30 people for Thanksgiving. There’s no question we’re gonna be there,” he said with a hearty laugh. “We’ll have some wine and some beer and we’ll have a grand time.”

Amy and Steve Odefey were standing outside their home on Randall Street. It had been a week since the flood. They showed me inside, which resembled most other homes on the block now: The first floor was a skeleton, with exposed subfloors and open walls. Like all the others on Randall Street, their house had survived the 1927 flood and will survive this one, too. I asked how they were doing. “Bone tired,” said Steve, 45, stubble-faced and glassy-eyed. “But we’re uplifted by the incredible generosity and outpouring of support.” A weary Amy Odefey, 38, said, “We’ve just been embraced. We’re being held together from the outside. How can we fall down when so many people are holding us up?”

The floods of 2011 broke many things: centuries-old covered bridges, roads, and houses, to name a few. It will take years to rebuild; many people will suffer great hardship. But the raging rivers revealed something stronger than wood and steel: the incredibly generous spirit of Vermonters, and the ties that bind communities. We know winter is coming. All around Vermont, we’re buttoning up, bringing in the firewood, and preparing for the cold, snowy nights ahead. And over on Randall Street, Gus Ayers and his family will be preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for 30, just as they always have, thanks to a little help from their neighbors.

David Goodman, who wrote “The Flood” sent us this postscript after Thanksgiving:

A bookend to my flood story: recall that the story ended with Gleason Ayers, 94, expressing his determination and wish to have Thanksgiving in his flooded home along with 30 guests. I stopped by the house last Wednesday to find the family frantically putting the finishing touches on their home to host the feast. The place looked remarkably good, with newly finished floors and freshly painted walls. But since the flood, Gleason’s health had declined and he had recently moved into a nursing home. His family nevertheless hoped they could bring him home for the holiday. On Thursday morning, when his son and grandson came to the nursing home to pick him up, it was clear that Gleason was too weak to travel. So the family took turns visiting him at the nursing home during the day, and held their feast that evening. His wish came true: he lived to hear that Thanksgiving was held in his home as it has for over a century, smiling when family members came to tell him about it. On Saturday, Gleason Ayers died peacefully in his sleep. His family tradition carried on through one of Vermont’s greatest disasters; his work was done.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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