Everyone knew that Hurricane “Irene” was coming; NOAA and the whole world of weather prognosticators had been charting its’ course, speed, content – its’ very pulse beat – for days if not weeks. Residents of the outer islands and beachlands of the east coast had been given ample warning of the massive storm’s capacity to inflict damage with its storm surge, high winds and driven rain. The experts heaved a sigh of relative relief as the storm’s eye turned inland, where it would lose its remaining punch, having largely spared the heavily-populated coastal areas its’ full wrath.
What no one seems to have expected was the twenty inches of rain which would fall in mere hours over the already saturated valleys of far-inland Vermont and upper New York State, where usually-placid streams and well-behaved rivers would become uncontrolled torrents overnight.
Two words in that description jump out to the “Emergency Manager” in my own background: UNEXPECTED. And OVERNIGHT. It was during the dark nighttime hours of August 27-28 that rampaging waters took out roads, bridges, power lines, water systems and the very infrastructure of entire communities, to say nothing of the homes and businesses literally lifted from their foundations and personal vehicles washed away or buried. Many communities were cut off and isolated, and would be on-their-own for days afterward. Vermont had not known such widespread flooding since 1928, well beyond the living memory of all but a few still around in August, 2011, but no one – including weather experts – had expected this one.
As I watched my beloved Bartonsville covered bridge float away on television news, and as we finally completed a phone call to family members in the hardest hit area, I realized that I was connected, not just professionally, but deeply and personally to what was happening so far away. Tragically, even the two fatalities mentioned in the breaking news story – a father-and-son team attempting to locate and repair a breach in a municipal water supply – were family friends. (That breach would remain a problem and the cause for water rationing for a city of 17,000 for three weeks afterward.)
Lessons learned or relearned: When electric power and transportation are severed, grocery store shelves empty very quickly and the average American family residence will run out of food, water and basic resources in about three days. While there are thankfully individual exceptions to this statistic, it continues to be a remarkably accurate prediction across our country from disaster to disaster and from year to year. For Vermont’s first rate Emergency Management community, rescue and recovery efforts were greatly slowed and hampered by the need to fly basic supplies into dozens of stranded towns and farms where otherwise whole-and- healthy residents were unable to provide for their own immediate needs.
I see no reason to change the title of my book, first named more than a decade ago: “FORTIFYING YOUR HOME AGAINST THE UNEXPECTED”, now in its fourth printing.
Three days after “Irene”, East Pittsford in Central Vermont is still under water. The “Hammond” covered bridge built in 1843 has barely survived the usually-quiet flow of Otter Creek, a favorite spot for the author, whose family members live nearby.
Even Vermont’s high country did not escape flooding: Route 100 near the world-famous “Killington” ski center was heavily impacted, with miles of paved roadway undermined and lodge buildings swallowed.
Charm was no protector. The town of Pittsfield, a favorite subject of calendar photographers every year, was left cut off as the highway was ruptured at both ends of the picturesque country village.
A hand-built walkway allows temporary access to route 100 near Rochester, Vermont on August 31st, 2011.
All photos courtesy of Mansfield Heliflight