A Reminder of Tropical Storm Irene Is Suddenly Gone, and Memory Fades

A drive down any stretch of the White River reveals constant reminders of Tropical Storm Irene’s devastating flooding.

Wooded islands remain covered with the corpses of dead trees, and next to Route 14 are homes either still under construction or waiting to be removed. In Sharon, a tall gravel slope sloughed into the river and remains an open sore on the landscape.

Among all these sights, there was one that reminded passersby of the height of the flood and was perhaps the only damaged object that spoke to the tenacity of the storm’s many survivors.

Where Interstate 89 crosses the river in Sharon, two concrete piers rise high above the water. On a ledge on one of these piers, the Irene floodwaters deposited a tree limb. The limb bent double, but clung to the bridge pier and when the water receded, there it remained.

The limb was roughly at eye-level with passing motorists. Seeing it there each morning on my way to work, especially in the weeks after the flooding, gave me a chill. It reminded me that during the flood, that patch of Route 14 was a no-man’s land, scoured by surging water. Even a year after the storm, I looked for it, partly to see whether it was still there, partly to see whether it still stirred up any feelings of dread.

A reminder, even an accidental memorial like a piece of debris, has surprising power. Visitors to the Tunbridge Fair might remember a high-water mark, from 1978, painted on one of the cow barns next to the First Branch of the White River. Someone put it there, a gentle warning to all who walk past: “You could be under water right now.”

Sharon Aldrich has posted photographs of the Irene flood damage in her Sharon restaurant, Sandy’s Drive-In. “The water level here was above my rain gutters,” she said, taking a break from the kitchen after lunch one afternoon this week.

She had taken note of the tree limb stuck high above the river. “You just constantly think, that’s where the water was,” she said.

Aldrich hadn’t been up that way recently, so hadn’t noticed the limb was gone. I think it went missing around Christmas, most likely blown down by one of the early winter storms.

I had meant to stop and take a picture of it, but it was in an awkward spot, and I was always in a hurry. I asked Aldrich, but she didn’t have one or know of anyone who did. When I drove around Sharon, to the town garage, the town offices, the two stores, everyone recalled seeing the limb, but no one had taken a photograph, or noticed it had fallen.

All things are temporary, of course, and the limb held onto its fragile perch far longer than I expected. Now, as I drive by, I try to remember it there, but soon I’ll forget.

Without these reminders, how will we remember the flooding? That’s no challenge for the people who lived through it. Many of them are still piecing their lives together. But for the rest of us memory is faulty, a broken limb that can’t hang on forever.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com.