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Irene’s Impact Still Felt Five Years Later

  • Sue Esty, a resident of the mobile home park in Woodstock, Vt., reads at her home on Aug. 25, 2016. Esty was displaced by Tropical Storm Irene into another home, also in the mobile home park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Raelene Lemery, 75, of Stockbridge, Vt. manager of the Red Door Thrift Store, right, works with volunteer Pamela Greene, of South Royalton, left, to sort through donations in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, August 26, 2016. Lemery is active in service in the community, leading efforts in the town to provide a weekly community meal, and to distribute backpacks with toiletries and supplies for the homeless. Lemery was at the home of her son-in-law in East Bethel on August 28, 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene caused the flash flooding that inundated her property and washed out her driveway and nearby roads making it inaccessible for months. She was unable to return to living in the house until December, but mold that had developed in her long absence sickened her. "I figured, I could do this myself. I could clean my house out. And I was getting sicker by the minute," she said. After having the indoor air quality tested in late January 2012, Lemery was told she would have to leave. In February of that year volunteers gathered to clean out the house, but she is still paying off the repairs, and parts of the home remain unfinished. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Volunteers Sharon O'Connor, left, Suzanne Long and Cora Honingford, all of South Royalton, Vt., and Kayvon Hejazi, of Bethel, Vt., work to remove everything from Raelene Lemery's flood-damaged home in Stockbridge, Vt., yesterday so that the items can be cleaned and the home cleared of mold after damage from Tropical Storm Irene. A nearby brook flooded Lemery's basement, and she was unable to reach her home for weeks after the storm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • On Sept. 3, 2011, Tom Young, property manager with the Vermont State Housing Authority, points out damage to Gwynn Kawakami, a property adjuster with Crawford and Co., which is handling claims relating to flood damage at the mobile home park in Woodstock, Vt. (Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene were starting to recede on August 29, 2011, at Upper Valley Plaza on Route 12A in West Lebanon, N.H., following Tropical Storm Irene's rains the day before. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2016

Woodstock — Sue Esty can still taste the terror she felt when the cold waters of the Ottauquechee River closed over her ankles, her feet sinking deep into the grassy lawn that lay a few yards from the cinder blocks beneath her trailer in Woodstock’s Riverside Mobile Home Park.

The 74-year-old former Wal-Mart worker didn’t know how far down she would go.

“I was scared. The ground was so spongy, I thought I was going to sink right in,” she said Wednesday.

Five years to the day since Tropical Storm Irene caused widespread destruction, the roiling waters have long since receded from the flood plains and roads of the Upper Valley. But the memories and impressions of residents like Esty show the storm’s legacy — like the mythologized Great Blizzard of 1888, or the Flood of 1927 — will cast a long shadow over the region for years to come.

“I had been through tornadoes, earthquakes. I got caught in an elevator once,” said Esty, “but the flood was the worst I had been through.”

The low-lying park is cradled inside the curve of an oxbow — Esty said the sight of the height of the river water already had her on a state of high alert, but stumbling into the watery depression outside her home jolted her into action.

“I thought I was going to die right there by that lilac bush,” she said.

Once she gained higher ground, she grabbed her Siamese cat and her neighbor, Muriel, and drove to the home of her son in Perkinsville, where she spent the night.

The following day, after guiding her car along an eerily unfamiliar landscape, Esty saw a park that looked like an occult hand had reached down and scrambled the lives of the park’s residents into a sodden and mud-coated shambles. Irene had stolen her lawn ornaments and picnic table, ripped the door off her shed, and knocked her home askew on its cinder blocks.

Everything was gone, or ruined. The appliances. The furniture. The photo albums. The oxygen tank that had made it easier for her husband to breathe, before he died. The lawnmower. The little hand-painted glass turtle that her sister had given to her. Her husband’s old sharpening tool that she planned to pass on to her son.

Since then, her life has been about rebuilding. The little glass turtle made its way back to her after a neighbor spied it on the riverbank. FEMA pronounced Esty’s home uninhabitable, and cut her a check, which she used to purchase another trailer just yards away.

Esty also experienced the communal pulling together that was much lauded during and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

“Right after it happened, we all came together as a little community,” she said

But it didn’t last. Five of her six closest neighbors, including Muriel, were displaced by the storm. They never came back.

“Everybody’s on their own again,” said Esty.

Lost Business

A little farther down the river, in Quechee, David Coates, 74, an optimist who still retains an accent from his native England, realized that his home and business, Woodstock’s Pond Ridge Motel, would survive largely unscathed.

It was a time when many in the Upper Valley, including the suddenly homeless area residents he invited to stay at the motel, were shell-shocked by the disaster swirling all around. But Coates said some came to appreciate his relentless cheerfulness, in the face of which the ordeal could even take on a sense of adventure.

With the floodwaters still raging, he went to Quechee to see what he could see.

Quechee Main Street, where the covered bridge, a portion of the street, and a nearby office building were destroyed, was a surreal spectacle, with white propane tanks bobbing like marshmallows on cocoa-colored waters.

Coates got a particular thrill when he saw a pile of brush go whizzing by, riding high in a big raft of tangled branches.

He recognized that brush pile — “like a big float going down.” That whole summer, he had spent about 60 sweaty hours assembling it while doing yardwork at the motel. He was happy that he wouldn’t have to dispose of it.

The edges of his cheer were blunted by the quick realization that the storm had left him more work than it took away.

“The cleanup was a lot worse than the brush,” he said.

The water had ruined much of the motel’s meticulously kept grounds — debris was everywhere, from the motorboat he had chained on the sweeping lawn’s upper levels, to the trees by the water’s edge, which were coated in reeds and weeds, mud and crud, all of which had to be cleaned off manually.

He lost, but recovered, a picnic table. He never saw his barbecue grill again.

Worst of all, “it destroyed the look at the edge of the river. I had it groomed all the way to the river’s edge, but it took away a lot of the bank, which I couldn’t fix.”

Because the motel was cut off from the public, Coates said that he and his wife, Christine, canceled their scheduled reservations and instead housed displaced families and FEMA workers.

But even the loss of regular customers had a silver lining, Coates said, in the form of the piles of dried rations that the relief workers carried among their supplies.

“We managed,” he said, “to get some free dinners out of them.”

Some of the propane tanks in the Ottauquechee came to rest on the lower fields of the Billings Farm and Museum, which also has about 30 acres of alfalfa and corn fields that sprawl into low-lying land surrounded by an oxbow, said Darlyne Franzen, senior vice president of The Woodstock Foundation.

“The river cut our cornfields in half,” she said.

Franzen said that, because the cattle and other animals on the farm needed to be milked, fed and watered, farm staff used emergency generators and tapped into an old, gravity-fed water system that relied on pipes running down Mount Tom.

The raging river dumped as much as four feet of muck and filth onto the fields, the removal of which comprised part of a $717,000 cleanup effort; about half of that was covered by insurance, and another $54,000 came from the USDA and FEMA.

Irene left Billings’ cornfields with a hodgepodge of items — an award plaque that was returned to a resident of nearby River Road, half of the sign from the White Cottage Snack Bar, and dozens of bags of tortilla chips that floated over from the nearby Woodstock Farmers’ Market.

The chips were unbroken and tasted fine, said Franzen.

“Every now and then,” she said, “we still find something unusual.”​

Route 12A Recovery

Irene was, to put it mildly, bad for business.

With rain pouring down the eastern slopes of the Green Mountains, the White River topped 90,000 cubic feet per second and caused widespread destruction in such towns as Rochester, Bethel, Royalton, Sharon and Hartford.

It thundered into the Connecticut River, not far from where the Mascoma River also raged its way in, causing flooding in the plazas along Route 12A, turning buildings that hosted J.C. Penney, K-Mart, North Country Eye Care and other businesses into shingle-topped islands.

Some major retail stores were closed for more than six months,and some smaller, locally owned shops such as the Mouse Menagerie and Encore Books struggled to recover, but today are no longer in business.

Before that fateful Aug. 28 day, 2011 was an exciting time for Dr. Richard Stegen, who, after 20 years of working at North Country Eye Care, had finally taken the plunge and purchased the business, which shares space with Pro Optical in the K-Mart Plaza.

When the floodwaters receded, Stegen said the office looked deceptively normal, except for things that had been moved — his briefcase had floated from an inner office to the front door, a distance of about 50 feet.

“The water had come in and gone so quickly,” he said.

But he soon discovered that the office was, like the contents of his briefcase, completely ruined.

They spent 10 weeks gutting the space and repopulating it with everything from desk chairs and computers to electronic medical equipment.

That all cost money — Stegen said he had to take out a significant loan to keep the business going.

“We’re still paying for that,” he said.

“We have another few years to go paying for that.”

Irene has also made Stegen, and others in the plaza, flood-shy. In July 2013, 2 inches of heavy rainfall caused flash floods and the closure of some businesses; and in April 2014, a flood warning had workers hastily erecting sandbags and moving merchandise off the ground.

Those fears may become increasingly well-founded in the future, with a new report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that climate change is expected to increase hurricane costs by 39 percent nationwide in the coming decades.

Still, Stegen said that he tried to keep his business losses in perspective. His own house in Grafton had escaped damage, while “people in Vermont,” he said, “lost homes.”

Lingering Stress

Raelene Lemery, 75, is a fixture at the thrift shop in the rear of the Chelsea Station restaurant in Royalton. For her, Irene memories are stones, sharp and heavy in a thickening silt of time and years.

For three weeks after the flood, because the White River had washed out Route 107 — “It looked like it never existed,” said Lemery — she wasn’t able to even visit her one-level home off 107 on Sweet Lane in Stockbridge.

During that time, Lemery was a familiar face to those in need, showing up in rubber boots to rake muck out of basements, cooking food from the home of her son-in-law, where she was living, or using her thrift store job to get people clothing or home goods for items they had lost.

She hoped — in vain — that her own house had been spared.

Since then, she’s endured much misery, beginning the first time she clambered over the four-foot embankment that blocked off her driveway, and set foot in her house, where canteloupe-sized mushrooms festooned the carpet of her living room.

Lemery, who said her main source of income is her Social Security checks, had no easy way to pay for repairs and replacements — disposal fees at the landfill alone were $400; her kitchen and bathroom had to be gutted to eradicate the mold; and she needed all new appliances.

She took out a $22,000 loan, but it didn’t go as far as she had hoped. There’s a giant pit in her backyard, while her side room is still uninhabitable. And now she has the loan on her back.

“I won’t live long enough to pay it back,” she said. “I’ve run out of money and energy.”

In a sign of the psychic damage Irene has wrought, Lemery is one of a few people interviewed who said the storm has affected her mental health.

“I always loved the rain,” she said. “But I have post traumatic stress disorder. When it rains, it’s just like, you can’t breathe.”

Lemery said she has sought counseling, and now knows to play loud music to block out the sound of the rain, and to engage in breathing exercises to stop her heart from racing.

Lemery expressed frustration with FEMA and the state government, which she said did little to help her. But she was moved by the actions of the Chittenden Fire Department, members of her church, and others in the Upper Valley who donated time and materials to help her rebuild her driveway and make most of her home livable.

Of all of the legacies left by Irene — displacement and debt, tragedy and trauma — there is hope that the last impression Lemery spoke of might be the most enduring.

“People pulled together,” she said, “and it helped me.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.