Not-So-Calm Before the Storm
Victims of Irene Worry as Area Rivers Reach Flood Stage
Sears brought employees from as far away as Plattsburgh, N.Y. to its West Lebanon store to help move merchandise out of the showroom and truck it to a nearby warehouse on high ground in case of flooding Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Sears and several other stores in the Upper Valley Plaza on Route 12A were badly damaged in Tropical Storm Irene and hoped early action would prevent similar losses.
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Farm Assistant Nick Rathmann looks out to the flooding of the Second Branch of the White River in South Randolph, Vt., at Nonemacher Farm on April 15, 2014. "I was talking to Chris (Nonemacher, the farm's owner) about getting a boat so we could go and fix the fences in that flooded cow pasture," Rathman joked, "Last year, this pasture flooded twice."
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Jeff Hale of West Windsor tries his luck for some trout at the Mascoma River's inlet to Lake Mascoma Tuesday, April 15, 2014. "I've never seen it this high," said Hale of the swollen river.
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West Lebanon — By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the bottom shelves at Encore Books were bare.
Employees at the Route 12A reseller spent the day moving hundreds of books to higher ground — or at least to higher shelves — in anticipation of potential flooding from the nearby Connecticut River overnight.
“Right now, my stomach is sinking,” said owner Kelley Foy, as she sat on the floor toward the front of the store. “I keep running to (the area behind) Staples and looking at the river.”
Foy’s store was among the many business owners, homeowners and emergency planners bracing for potential flooding across the Upper Valley Tuesday night, as forecasters warned that heavy rains and snow melt could tip some rivers over the edge.
At Sears, also on 12A, which used a nearby warehouse as a temporary location following Tropical Storm Irene flooding in 2011, employees used dollies to cart washing machines and other appliances onto trucks to be removed from the store.
Meanwhile, emergency management officials stockpiled sandbags as water began to cover the most flood-prone roads by Tuesday afternoon. At 1 p.m., the Connecticut River had risen to 17.4 feet in West Lebanon, just shy of the 18-foot flood stage in that area, according to the National Weather Service. It was past flood stage by 8:30 p.m.
The agency predicted the river could rise to 24.9 feet by this morning. That would be almost five feet less than the levels seen during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. The all-time record is 35 feet in 1927.
Norwich Director of Planning Phil Dechert, the town’s floodplain manager, said in an email to residents that officials were concerned about properties along the Connecticut and Ompompanoosuc rivers and their backwaters.
“If you live along either of these rivers within the floodplain, please be alert and have a plan,” he said. “This is a very different situation than the flooding of the tributary streams by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 in that the potential flooding could be along the main rivers.”
Back on Route 12A, the 2011 flood was on the forefront of Foy’s mind Tuesday, as that storm nearly wiped out Encore Books. The store reopened with community support and eventually moved into a smaller storefront a couple of doors down — closer to the Connecticut River, which had Foy worried on Tuesday.
“Oh, good Lord, yes,” Foy said, when asked if Irene was on her mind. “I feel nauseous. I can’t even tell you.”
Every time she checked on the river, it had risen a little bit, she said, holding her hands in front of her to show how much.
Sears, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney were all closed by 5 p.m., several hours earlier than usual, in anticipation of the rising water.
Lebanon officials had gathered a large pile of sandbags in the middle of the plaza parking lot, and a fire truck circled the area.
TransCanada spokeswoman Sharan Kaur said the utility, which controls the Wilder Dam on the Connecticut River, was “continuously monitoring weather and river conditions” around the dam area and would alert federal, state and local officials if needed.
Farther north at Newmont Farm, Margaret Gladstone said farmland her family cultivates for corn and pumpkins, and some grassland, along the Connecticut River in Fairlee, Haverhill, Bradford and Newbury was underwater.
“It looks like it’s going to going to be pretty extreme. There is still a lot of snow left to melt, and there is rain in the forecast,” she said Tuesday afternoon.
Gladstone said she’d seen similar flooding before, but this week’s inundation was coming on top of a long winter that has delayed the spreading of manure and other preparations for planting.
“We just want the flooding to do its thing and get done so we can get on our land, because we are late,” she said.
Heavy rains pounded the Randolph and Bethel areas by mid-afternoon, with some parts of Route 14 partially submerged. The Vermont Agency of Transportation announced that Route 110 in Chelsea Village had been reduced to one lane of traffic for high water around 7 p.m. By 8:30 p.m., the road was closed at the Howe Bridge, south of Tunbridge Village.
In the village of West Hartford, which saw significant damage from Irene, resident Linda Hart said she was keeping a close eye on the murky rapids.
“We are watching it,” said Hart, whose family lost their Route 14 home in 2011. “We are very familiar with where the water mark was last time on the bridge when it got to be a real concern, so we are keeping an eye on it.”
When Hart and her husband, Randy, rebuilt their home — which they have lived in since the 1970s — they raised it up four feet and rebuilt the basement without windows.
“If (the river) starts getting up by the road, we will probably start getting the hell out of here,” Randy Hart said.
“We can’t foresee it happening again, but we never believed it would happen the first time,” Linda Hart said. “I grew up in this village and I still right up until the last minute said, ‘no it’s not going to happen.’ ”
At least one basement had flooded along Mascoma Lake in Enfield by 3 p.m., as the water crept toward the road in some areas.
That was fine by West Windsor resident Jeff Hale, who works as a window washer. There wasn’t much business Tuesday, so he went to the lake to fish — one of the few local areas where the water wasn’t too high.
Hale said a footbridge to his home was washed away during Tropical Storm Irene, and he hasn’t been able to build a permanent replacement as he awaits reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sometimes, he wears waders and walks through the brook, but not Tuesday.
“Right now it would take me off my feet,” he said.
Valley News staff writers Jordan Cuddemi and John P. Gregg contributed to this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.