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Tropical Storm Irene, 10 years later: Homeowners decide whether to stay and rebuild or move away

  • A home belonging to Michael and Leslie Piela along the White River on Route 107 in Bethel survived the 1927 flood, but was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene's flooding on Aug. 28, 2011. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

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    Leslie Piela pulls on rubber gloves on Dec. 30, 2011, before sorting through moldy paperwork salvaged from her Bethel, Vt., home, which was destroyed by Irene's flooding. After getting settled with her husband, Mike, in a rental home in Bethel, Piela was ready to begin putting her business as a wellness coach back together. "It's like an emotional roller coaster," she said. "It'll come and bite you when you're not expecting it." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    As bicyclists stop to look at the White River from Route 14 in South Royalton, Vt., on Aug. 13, 2012, Peg Elmer plants perennials on her new terraces in front of her house, which was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. After the flood, Elmer's choice was to either "raise or raze" her home. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • Peg Elmer Hough kisses her husband Randy Hough at the close of an interview being filmed by Sam Bruce for a Resilience Festival oral history project on residents’ experiences during Tropical Storm Irene Sunday, August 28, 2016. Elmer Hough has since moved to Cabot, Vt., but her home was undercut by flood waters from the White River during the storm and she had the building lifted onto a new, higher foundation and built a stone wall as a breakwater in the event of another flood of Irene’s power. The coulple were married two years ago in a garden on the property on the anniversary of the storm. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2021 6:59:56 PM
Modified: 8/31/2021 12:58:45 PM

BETHEL — The metal bridge that crosses the White River in Bethel used to lead to a 200-year-old light blue house crowned with a small red cupola. Leslie Piela, and her husband, Mike, built a family there.

Normally, the couple would go to church on Sunday mornings. But on Aug. 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene was already inundating Bethel. They decided to stay home and keep an eye on the White River.

“We saw that the river was coming up about 2 feet in 20 minutes,” Leslie Piela said. “And meanwhile, I had gone in the house and taken down as many paintings, artwork — whatever we had. And I put them up on one of the beds in one of the guest rooms upstairs. I couldn’t get everything.”

Around 1 p.m., their neighbor, Paul Feeney, told them that they needed to evacuate. He was a Vermont state trooper and his early calls that Sunday gave him a preview of the destruction headed their way.

“We had no idea what was happening,” Piela said.

Together, the Piela and Feeney families tried to get to the Feeneys’ camper, but washed-out roads and a missing bridge stopped them. Instead, they stayed with friends in Bethel whose house stood on higher ground.

After a sleepless night, they returned at 5 a.m. Arm-in-arm, Leslie and her friend and neighbor Dietre Feeney walked over the bridge that leads from Bethel’s town center to their homes.

The first thing Leslie saw was the Feeneys’ house teetering. Then it registered: “All you could see was their house,” Piela recalled. “And all of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Where is our house?’ ”

Her own home should have been between where she stood and the Feeneys’. But the flooding had driven it off its foundation. The Third Branch and White rivers, after merging in all their fury, had jumped their banks, sweeping away the Pielas’ first floor and discarding its shattered remains somewhere downstream.

The second floor dropped to the ground 50 feet away. The house had stood strong through the 1927 flood that set state records, but it could not withstand Irene.

“I was really numb. People were walking around and they kept coming up and hugging me, saying, ‘Leslie, oh, Leslie,’ ” Piela said. “But I was just numb.”

The Pielas weren’t alone. As the storm whiplashed Vermont, it chewed through over 3,500 homes. The homeowners who lost the most were left with a dilemma: Stay and rebuild their lives, or say enough is enough and move away?

Starting from nothing

Leslie, now 62, has been a nurse, a stay-at-home mom, and a wellness coach. But through it all, she had always been an artist, painting folk art that captures New England’s charm. She has an eye for the beauty around her, and the details of her old house live crystallized in her memory.

“The thing that got to me was that the house was beautiful,” she said. “It was a 200-year-old house with wide pumpkin pine floors. It had this cupola up on the top that I fell in love with. ... Just to see such destruction, that was one of the hardest things for me — the destruction, the violence of it.”

Mike had bought the house and its three-quarters of an acre for Leslie in 2002. She had divorced and needed a place to live with her four teenage and pre-teen children.

“I had been looking at that house for years and years and years. And it was in disrepair, and I just wished someone would buy it. It had so much charm,” Leslie said.

He insisted on buying it for her, telling her, “you need a place to live and we’re doing it.”

Eventually, he moved in himself. The previous owners had already beautifully renovated the interior, and Mike painted the exterior.

“It was the place that we became a family. It was just special,” Leslie said.

Odds and ends resurrected in unexpected places, offering mementos of her family’s life before Irene. An excavator found her grandmother’s ring in a little box as he lifted up one chunk of their fragmented house. As she was walking through town, their daughter spotted her mother’s clam-shaped salt and pepper shaker. A box filled with family albums floated across the second floor, landing neatly on a shelf.

What they could save was precious, but the remnants were scarce: Piela estimates that they lost 95% of their possessions, including two cars, Christmas ornaments and children’s craft projects.

“It was the connection to my past and my husband’s past,” Piela said. “I still reach for things every once in a while, like, ‘Where the heck is that?’ Like, ‘Oh wait, we don’t have that anymore.’ ”

The storm upended their life in just a few hours, but it would take far longer to recover. Leslie spent hours calling state and federal agencies and insurance companies while Mike saved everything he could from their home. Rebuilding their fractured house would have cost “thousands and thousands and thousands,” she said. They had to demolish it, which is itself an expensive undertaking.

Their friends were quick to help. One took her out to a nice lunch and bought her shampoo, a hairbrush, lipstick — “things that made me feel human.”

Another replaced a Pandora bracelet that her children had bought for her. The Pielas were left homeless, and friends in Randolph insisted that they stay with them for three months.

Early that fall, the town was rebuilding the bridge that once led to their home. The contractor hired to fix the bridge asked to park his equipment on what was left of the Pielas’ land. In exchange, he offered to knock down the remaining rooms of the house at no cost.

“He knew what it meant to take down that house,” Piela said. She described how gently he took down her beloved cupola as she looked on in tears. What he did next caught her off guard.

“He said to me he goes, ‘You’re taking down the rest of the house,’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’re taking down the chimney tomorrow.’ ”

Sure enough, the next day her husband brought a footstool and escorted her into the massive excavator. The contractor gave her a rudimentary lesson on how to handle the machine.

“I swung that thing around, and it was like I had done it all my life. I have no idea where that came from. Crunched the chimney — everybody was hooting and hollering. And then I said, ‘What do I do now?’ He goes, ‘Take down the rest of the house,’ and I did,” Piela said. “It was so cathartic it was like, ‘Take that you bitch, Irene.’ ”

Flood insurance paid off their mortgage, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, compensated them for some of their appliances. None of their furniture was covered, and their three-quarters of an acre was not buildable. That didn’t mean they could stop paying their water bills for a home that no longer existed. They even hired a lawyer to petition the town to abate the property taxes valued on a home that no longer existed, but the town of Bethel denied their request.

They spent months renovating a rented apartment that looks over Bethel’s lumberyard while a steady stream of friends, co-workers and neighbors painted, cleaned and restored Victorian detailing.

“We had this overwhelming desire to make a nice home because we just came from a nice home,” Piela said.

While they were driving back to their new apartment one day, Piela turned to her husband.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I can be here anymore.’ I physically felt like I was going to vomit,” Piela said. “It was so nauseating and so anxiety-producing everywhere I went. And then of course, my land, there was nothing. It was just a pile of dirt at this point. And so going by there was painful. Everything was painful.”

Moving from the area was not a practical thing to do — Piela’s adult children still live in the area, and Mike Piela is a house painter whose business depended on the relationships he had built with customers in the Upper Valley.

But living in Bethel meant living with the memory of Irene. Leslie Piela picked up a local paper and saw an ad for a house for rent in Milton, Vt., a town on Lake Champlain.

“I would always say I want to downsize and live by the water. Well God probably didn’t quite hear what I said, I didn’t mean downsized by water,” said Piela. “We feel like this was meant to be.”

Sitting on the porch of her new home in Milton, she looks over Lake Champlain and describes her clear view of passing sailboats and sparkling calm water with the same appreciation that she still has for her lost home.

“Sometimes, it’s actually hard to leave the house because it’s so beautiful,” Mike said of their current home.

It took a few years for Mike to rebuild his clientele farther north, but now all his customers are in the Lake Champlain area. On Oct. 22, 2020, Leslie’s birthday, they opened Lakelife Nutrition in Milton, where they sell healthy shakes and teas.

They are still on the lookout for their “forever home.”

Building higher

Thousands felt the brutal touch of Irene. The humid tropical air drove through the Green Mountains and dropped as much as 11 inches of rain in 18 hours in the hardest-hit parts of the state. Six Vermonters would die in the floodwaters. Thirteen towns were left stranded with no route to provisions or medical assistance. Across the border in New Hampshire, at least 165 homes were damaged.

In South Royalton, Peg Elmer Hough was living in another picturesque old home on the edge of a river when Irene arrived in all its fury. Normally, she saw a sheltered swimming hole in the White River when she looked through her French doors. On that Sunday morning, though, she saw the river turn violent.

“We had this big rock, Pitch Rock,” she said. “I saw an entire maple tree go flying across the top of it with all the leaves and the root base. That was how high the water was suddenly, really suddenly.”

She knew that she and the Vermont Law School student staying in her house would need to evacuate. The river was surging, and they didn’t have much time.

She thought she would at least have to make lunch, but then a firefighter called, horrified that she had not already evacuated. They left, intent on going to a friend’s house, but washed-out roads blocked their way.

Irene washed out 1,200 bridges and culverts and 500 miles of roadways across the state.

They went to the emergency center at Hartford High School. Families streamed in, sobbing. Their homes, with all their possessions, had washed away.

She decided to risk a drive to Cabot, Vt., where she could stay with friends.

“It was a moment when (Irene) stopped — I think the eye passed over. It got very still on the interstate. There were no cars,” she said.

A disoriented coyote wandering aimlessly over the highway. Firetrucks clustered around washed-out roads.

They drove through rushing water as Vermont Public Radio warned that the Marshfield Reservoir could break open at any moment and unleash another deluge.

“We got there and then suddenly it was just friends and eating good food like nothing’s happening,” she said.

Only an hour from South Royalton, it was nothing more than a particularly rainy day.

The next morning, she drove back to see the damage for herself, although the fire department warned that a hole in Route 14 would stymie any attempt to drive all the way to her house.

“The house was close to wrecked,” she said. “All the furniture was stacked up on the downstream side of the front door ... The water had burst through the French doors on the upstream side — it had just broken them open.”

Raccoon tracks ambled through the 6 inches of mud deposited on the floor. They led up to the toppled refrigerator whose door had fallen open. The food Elmer Hough had stowed for the disaster spilled out. The river had bored a hole through its bank, washed out Route 14 and penetrated her house. Three inches of mud clogged the bathroom sink, showing just how high the water had gotten. As she summarized it, “the river raged through my house.”

“You can’t replace the things,” she said. “There was Victorian clothing I’d gotten from my grandmother. It was great for costumes, and really old Girl Scout uniforms from the 1920s that I probably could have washed up, but I had so much stuff wrecked that I just threw it all away. It all went into the dumpsters.”

For Elmer Hough, 2011 would have been a hard year even if a tropical storm had never decimated her home.

A few weeks before the storm, she had broken up with her longtime boyfriend. She had hoped that she could lean on her stable income as the lead of a land-use clinic at the Vermont Law School to qualify for loans, but just a few months after the storm she learned that she would lose her salaried position.

Elmer Hough, now 68, had years of experience in emergency management, and had learned to prepare for the worst. She had served as the planning director of the Agency of Commerce and Regional Development. In the 1990s, she saw that “statewide declared disasters started coming hard and fast — two or three times a year.” She managed FEMA money coming into the state and drafted Vermont’s first hazard mitigation plan.

She had insisted on buying a flood insurance policy over and against the advice of the banker who oversaw her mortgage. Few people ever buy flood insurance unless they have to because they live on a flood plain, but Elmer Hough had. Because her home was not in a federally regulated flood zone, the rates remain low.

“It looked to me like it was in a dangerous location. It’s in a curve, so that if the river goes over the bank, the river is going to go across Route 14 and then it’s going to go right through that house,” said Elmer Hough, who urges people to weigh their risks for themselves. “If you’re near a good-sized stream, or a small stream on a steep slope, there’s no telling what can happen.”

She had to work hard to benefit from her caution. Her insurance company offered a price that “put the contractors in tears,” she said. It simply was not enough to rebuild. She appealed, adding a laundry list of small improvements she had made before the home was destroyed.

“If you just back off a little bit and argue a little bit, they cave. It’s just standard routine that they lowball you the first time,” she said. “It’s just cruel.”

She had paid extra for a rider that promised to give her the money she would need to raise or move the house rather than simply replicate its vulnerabilities. To be eligible, however, the town would have to require her to demolish it, move it to higher ground or lift the foundation, but Royalton did not regulate construction outside of the mapped flood plain.

In effect, she had been paying for insurance she categorically could not benefit from.

The Selectboard agreed to write up a firm letter in favor of making the house more resilient, but it was not enough to satisfy the insurance agency.

Elmer Hough weighed the pros and cons of raising the house’s foundation or demolishing it: If she did minimal repairs and sold it as it was, another flood might come in 25 to 30 years and someone else might lose as much as she did. If she demolished it, the 8 acres would be of little value and she’d lose the $212,000 house.

She decided to use her own money to “make it safe for another 100 years.” She built a stone breakwater on the upstream wall — the biggest stone is the size of a small Volkswagen. She lifted the house up about two feet above the Irene flood mark and disguised the extended foundation with terraces of perennials.

The rocks and ripples in the landscaping would break up the energy of the river should it cut a line toward the house again. She donated the land she owned across the stream to the Vermont River Conservancy, where a local nonprofit, the White River Partnership, planted trees.

Despite all of her investments, when she sold it in 2017 it went for a few thousand dollars less than she bought it for. Unable to recoup the investment she had made, she lost $100,000.

Her neighbors helped as much as they could. In the week after the storm, more than 100 showed up at her house to tear up floorboards, scrub and dump. They saved the house from mold.

One neighbor, Randy Hough, saw her contemplating how to get some of larger pieces of furniture back into the house. He had a truck and offered to help, and followed his offer with an invitation to dinner at the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph.

In 2014, they married in the garden that she had replanted after Irene.

She only realized that she was getting married on the anniversary of Irene as she was writing out their wedding invitations.

“It turned a bad date into a good date,” she said. “It was really sweet. Randy made that whole year. It was only really bad until April.”

Elmer Hough said she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the storm “took years off my life.” Losing so much gave her new insight into what it really means for a community to prevail through a disaster.

After Irene, she founded Community Resilience Organizations, a nonprofit to help families and residents build the strong communal connections that ensure that no one will be alone when disaster hits.

“I focused on monetary damages and infrastructure when planning, but it was the towns that had the strong social networks that did well,” she said. “I was lucky to be in South Royalton, to be in Vermont.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

CORRECTION

Peg Elmer Hough raised her house in Royalton on the White River approximately two feet above the level of the Irene flood water, as marked by the mud on a nearby maple tree. An earlier version of this story understated how high it was elevated.




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