Road to Recovery Continues Following Floods; I-89 Reopens After Sinkhole Repaired

  • Dan Bragg tosses a shovel out of his truck before dumping a load of gravel on a Houghton Hill Road driveway in Thetford, Vt. on July 3, 2017. The driveway was damaged by heavy rains on Saturday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chuck Gordon, of White River Junction, pauses after talking with Rusty Comstock, an employee of Independent Merchandisers of New England, one of Gordon's tenents in his White River Junction building that was hit by flood runoff and a mudslide during Saturday's heavy rains. "It's the not knowing that's killing us," said Gordon who has not been able to contact his lawyer because of the extended holiday weekend and has not been permitted inside to assess the damage because of structural instability. "It would make me feel a little better if I could get in there and start cleaning stuff up." Eight businesses were displaced from the building, though Independent Merchendisers of New England was permitted to retrieve truckloads of products from the building and is now operating out of temporary storage units. The building was damaged in 2011 during Tropical Storm Irene, then last year there was an explosion in the building. Fearing further flooding, Gordon said he talked to both the Town of Hartford and New England Central Railroad in 2016 about the stability of the steep bank behind the building that borders both VA Cutoff Road and the train tracks. Neither would take responsibility for the runoff or the stability of the bank. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After a washed out section of railroad bed was filled with stone, Ryan McMillen, of Delta Railroad Construction, runs a machine preparing the stone bed before a second machine lifted the track and packed stone tightly underneath in White River Junction, Saturday, June 3, 2017. Heavy runoff from Saturday's rains undermined the track and washed mud, stone and debris downhill into a building owned by Chuck Gordon, and knocking a neighboring mobile home off its foundation. Amtrak and freight service north of White River Junction was halted after the damage on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Robyn Richards, of New England Central Railroad, bonds wire to bridge a gap between rails during repairs to a washed out section of track above Old River Road in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, July 3, 2017. The wire carries a signal to a nearby road crossing to activate signals as a train approaches. The washout caused damage to a home at the base of the bank. (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 Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Maintenance workers and residents around the Upper Valley on Monday continued to shore up roads and restore their connections to the world after a train of thunderstorm cells buffeted the region over the weekend.

That work involved a shutdown of Interstate 89 northbound on Monday evening as a large sinkhole developed between exits 1 and 2. The fissure filled the breakdown lane and had officials working late to try and reopen the interstate by the morning. It was reopened by 4:30 a.m., according to a Vermont State Police news r

In White River Junction, businesses and residents were displaced from a cluster of buildings near the intersection of VA Cutoff Road and Old River Road after a railroad berm failed and swamped the area with mud, water and debris, officials said.

In Norwich, the acting town manager said road damages were worse than they were in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene washed through the region, took out roads and bridges, and drew significant disaster relief aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The repairs were especially urgent in Thetford, where the emergency management director estimated that up to a quarter of homes could have limited roadway access.

“The priority is people who are trapped,” Mariah Whitcomb, director of emergency management there, said in a telephone interview on Monday. “We need to make sure we have emergency access and fire access. … The folks on the other side, we have made door-to-door, face-to-face contact with them, and they’re OK.”

Whitcomb said the number of households that are entirely cut off is constantly changing, but guessed that, including those homes and others that are inaccessible because of ruined driveways, “it still could be a quarter of our town.”

“I would like to thank our community for their patience and for their willingness to help their neighbors,” she added. “That has been a huge assistance to our work on the recovery.”

Selectboard Chairman Stuart Rogers on Sunday said that “50 residents at least” were stranded, though some areas since have been opened to cars.

Those reconnected roads included Van Norden Road and Potato Hill Road where they connect with Turnpike Road South.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott visited the intersection on Sunday, while it was still a gaping hole in the ground. He said it was too soon to tell whether a disaster declaration, which could bring federal aid dollars, was in order for the storm, which has been compared to Tropical Storm Irene for the damage it caused in some places.

By Monday afternoon, road crews had filled the maw with earth and cars were able to enter Potato Hill and Van Norden, though Turnpike Road beyond that intersection remained impassable.

Laura Caravella and Mike Watson, who live just above that point on Potato Hill Road, were out cleaning silt from their well on Monday. They said they had been dug out around 6 p.m. on Sunday. Caravella said they spent the night of the storm in their nearby cabin, to which they evacuated for fear that a tree might come down on their house.

A nearby stream that night had swelled into a rushing river under Turnpike Road, Caravella said, carrying away the roadbed and bringing down trees.

“The smell was amazing,” she said. “It was fresh earth everywhere. It sounded like thunder, the boulders crashing into each other.”

Once she got over the shock of it, she said, “it was amazing to see what nature could do.”

Damage also was extensive in Orford, where several sections of Route 25A were “completely gone” and may not be repaired for “many days,” officials said in a Monday-morning post to the town’s emergency management Facebook page.

“I know you all want to get out to look at the damage, but be very careful,” the officials said. “The fire department has already had three car accidents of cars falling into holes in the road that have collapsed.”

The Orford Fire Department announced the same morning that the damage to the town’s roads had been so great that the New Hampshire town’s portion of the annual Fairlee-Orford July 4 parade would be canceled.

That decision was reversed later in the day following a visit by Gov. Chris Sununu, according to the deparment’s Facebook page.

The fire chief in Fairlee, by contrast, said his community had escaped the worst.

“To be perfectly honest with you, Fairlee had fairly minimal damage,” Fire Chief Barry Larson said on Monday. “Most of the damage in our town was on state roads, so we’re not doing anything with that.”

Most repairs were complete the same night as the storm, Larson said, including work on state routes 244 and 5.

Later that day, officials in Fairlee and Orford reversed course, announcing that the two-town parade was still on.

Despite extensive damage down the road in Lyme, emergency management director Margaret Caudill-Slosberg said, the town planned to have all roads passable by the end of Monday.

But her main concern, she said, echoing Gilbert in Orford, was that “even though roads are open, they have not been inspected for undermining and other sub-visual damage.”

“People need to limit their use of these roads for getting to their houses and not for sightseeing — which is difficult on a holiday,” Caudill-Slosberg said.

The Upper Valley’s major population centers, Hanover, Hartford and Lebanon, fared better than its northern reaches, according to town officials.

“The storm tracked more north of us, which was fortunate for us, although not so much for other towns,” said Chris Christopoulos, Lebanon’s fire chief.

The most significant damage in Lebanon was to a culvert that failed on Stevens Road, he said, estimating that the city’s repairs could cost as much as $400,000.

“Today, we’re not too bad,” Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar said, adding that all roads had been reopened and that most damage had been residential. Repairs might cost between $200,000 and $400,000 for municipal infrastructure, he said.

Pullar said two households had had to be evacuated, both near the intersection of VA Cutoff Road and Old River Road, where a railroad berm failed. He said a mobile home had been knocked off its foundation and later was reset. A young family living above a beauty shop also was displaced because the building was condemned. Both families have been linked up with the Red Cross, he said.

Chuck Gordon, the owner of several buildings near that intersection that included the young family’s home, said his properties had been hit by water and debris carried by the mudslide. As of Monday evening, he had been unable to reach his lawyer or enter his building to assess the damage.

“It’s the not knowing that’s killing us,” he said. “It would make me feel a little better if I could get in there and start cleaning stuff up.”

Michael Gilbert, a captain with the Hanover Fire Department, said the town had restored access to damaged areas, including a section of Greensboro Road south of downtown that had washed out.

State workers also were out making repairs to Route 10, he said.

“We had a lot of water,” he said, “but we didn’t have the same damage that other towns did.”

In Norwich, acting Town Manager Phil Dechert said the worst washouts had affected portions of Route 5 North, Four Wheel Drive, Tigertown Road, Turnpike Road and Norford Lake Road. Most of those are now accessible, though in some areas to a limited extent, he said.

“We have a lot of road damage, definitely more so than we had in (Tropical Storm) Irene,” Dechert said in a telephone interview on Monday. “(There was) a lot of water, a lot of rain. Very quickly it generated a lot of power and a tremendous amount of erosion that we have not seen before.”

As in Thetford, some Norwich residents off Turnpike Road have no access by car to their homes, Dechert said.

“Particularly on the back roads we are asking that people use extreme caution and be careful,” he said.

Dechert said repair cost estimates would be available later in the week after state transportation officials visit Norwich on Wednesday to assess the damage. State engineers came to Thetford on Monday to take a similar inventory.

Emergency management officials in West Fairlee and Bradford could not be reached for comment.

Despite the hard labor from emergency workers, transit disruptions continued into Monday evening as Vermont State Police closed Interstate 89 northbound at Exit 1 and diverted traffic.

A “large sinkhole” had developed near mile marker 7.8, Hartford emergency officials wrote on Facebook Monday evening.

Vermont Agency of Transportation spokeswoman Jacqui LeBlanc said Monday night that officials were working late to assess the damage and determine a cause.

She couldn’t definitively say whether the recent rain contributed to the situation, but said “it’s definitely a possibility.”

“We are doing the best we can to get it repaired in a timely and safe manner,” LeBlanc said.

Staff writers James Patterson, Jordan Cuddemi and Martin Frank contributed to this report. Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.


This story has been updated to reflect that the Orford portion of the July 4 parade will continue as originally planned.