After the FLOODS

The year of extraordinary suffering and kindness

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

First it was Lake Champlain, swollen to historic proportions by heavy spring rains and snow melt. It delayed planting of crops and launching of boats, inundated camps, and left many Vermonters with unlivable homes.

Then in August, it was creeks and rivers swollen to, yes, historic proportions. They ripped out farmland and decimated crops, flooded and destroyed buildings, tore up roads and bridges, and took lives.

We could have left the floods that flanked our summer to other media, which have covered them well and continue to do so. And breaking news is not our milieu. But as repairs have been underway and basements are dried out and roads have reopened, we began to wonder about how affected business people have been coping with their particular crises brought about by Mother Nature. We thought our readers might, too.

Shelburne Shipyard did not suffer from Hurricane Irene, but the spring flooding of Lake Champlain set its business back a month and a half.

“It was a very costly spring, to say nothing about the repairs that had to be done because of the flooding,” said Karen Claxton, the office manager. “We didn’t step masts, boats weren’t being used, they weren’t being serviced. Believe me, we were not hit as much as other marinas. We feel very grateful we sustained as little damage as we did.”

“We had fish in our loading dock,” said Bill Orleans, the owner of PP&D on Pine Street in Burlington. “They stayed a long time. We had offsite deliveries because trucks couldn’t come through the loading docks. There was no water in the warehouse, though, so we’re not complaining what we had to go through.”

Photographers Brad Pettengill and Sonya Enright of BP Design in Burlington heard that sentiment time after time from people whose lives had been devastated. “Everybody we talk to compares themselves to somebody else who’s worse off,” said Enright. “I think that gives you a deep understanding about how privileged we are to be here — in this country, this state — and the community spirit that has just grown up like a mushroom bomb — a Hiroshima of help!”

Enright and Pettengill are, perhaps, perfect examples of that outpouring. The weekend of Sept. 3 and 4, they were scheduled to make their annual trip to Cape May to visit a friend. The closer it came, said Pettengill, “the more I felt compelled not to go. I thought, ‘I can’t go have a vacation and frolic out on the beach while people are completely devastated up here.”

Enright, whose experience includes a period running a nonprofit in Quebec, agreed. They canceled their trip and checked out vtresponse.com, a clearinghouse to match those seeking help and those wanting to help in the wake of Irene.

“We got the wish list of a donation drive down in Springfield,” said Pettengill, “went to Costco and spent about $350 to $400, filled up the car with everything on the wish list, and went down to this donation drive.”

They had no intention, at first, he said, “of going out and putting on boots and taking our shovels out.” But on the ride back from Springfield, instead of returning on I-89, they decided to drive up through the state’s small towns. It took a while. Detours were everywhere, many of them not marked.

Michael Milizia, a breeding program specialist for Genex Cooperative who provides farms with artificial insemination services, was familiar with detours.

“Many of the farms were totally inaccessible and didn’t even call,” he said. “The biggest problem was getting to some of the farms that were accessible. The first couple of days, it was frustrating. The towns had run out of signs saying the roads were closed. You’d drive a couple miles in, and suddenly there’s no bridge, or you encounter a sign way in there saying, Road Closed.”

Some of these farms had other sets of problems, Milizia added. “They had no electricity, which they needed to get cows milked, fed, and watered. Some of them had to dump milk for a couple of weeks.”

On their drive up from Springfield, Pettengill and Enright were moved by signs on the side of the road. “Everywhere we looked,” said Enright, “there were signs that said, ‘Please Help Us!’ and we couldn’t just ignore that.”

“That solidified our resolve to go out and put boots on the ground,” said Pettengill. The next weekend, with a bunch of friends, they set out.

In West Hartford, they were sent to the Village Store, where volunteers were removing flooring on the second floor and mucking out the basement through a hole in the foundation.

At first, they were disappointed to be sent to help a business rather than homeowners, said Pettengill, “Then Sonya brought up a good point. The businesses are the hubs of these communities. A senior citizen might come down to a village store for his daily meal, and now has no place to go.”

The First Place Ski Shop, in Killington since 1979, was another such community hub, said Pettengill, who described the owner as a “mother hen” taking care of all the people around the community.”

“He wanted to get his place cleaned up because, like the West Hartford Village Store, people went there every day, and they had lost that connection to the community,” said Enright.

That connection to community was growing everywhere. WDEV Radio carried around-the-clock coverage credited with saving lives and keeping people informed. The station’s owner, Ken Squier, was named Broadcaster of the Year by the Vermont Association of Broadcasters, in large part because of that effort.

John Likakis, executive director of WBTN-AM in Bennington, was also recognized by the VAB with its Distinguished Service Award for outstanding coverage of the storm.

According to Vern Grubinger, Extension professor with the University of Vermont in the Brattleboro office, the aftermath of the storm “exposed the whole interconnected network from farm to plate.”

Grubinger covers the state as the Extension fruit and vegetable specialist, and he has been on-site talking to farmers and collecting damage reports. At a recent fundraising dinner to benefit farmers and food-related businesses, he walked in and realized he “didn’t know hardly any of the people who showed up just because they eat local food.”

Unexpected connections have fascinated him, he said — “the kind of connections that have resulted from people wanting to help in the face of something bad.” He gives the example of a farmer he knows. “His brother works for ESPN, and suddenly all these baseball dignitaries are there helping out.”

Connections like this happened in many ways. Burlington chiropractor Jason Wolstenholme had worked as an associate at Health In Focus, a chiropractic practice in Waterbury, in preparation for buying it the first part of September. It was destroyed in the flood.

Working with broker Esther Lotz, he learned about two available spaces where he might set up his practice. Fortunately, he acted fast to secure a space, because the state, desperate to secure space for its flooded-out operations in the state hospital building, was quickly leasing as much available commercial space as it could find.

Mia Moore, chief of staff at Democracy for America in South Burlington, found a creative solution. Seeking a new home for her organization, she had found the perfect spot in Williston, only to learn that the state had been there before her and signed a one-year lease. “We wrote up an offer that starts November 2012,” she said.

The Alchemist Pub and Brewery on Waterbury’s Main Street was destroyed, said Liz Schlegel of the Central Vermont Community Action Council. “But as it happened, that same week, they opened their cannery and launched Heady Topper Beer and it sold out in hours.” In a side story, Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville, and Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend stepped up and arranged to bottle what little beer had not been ruined.

A lot of businesses have doubled up to share space, said Anne Imhoff, the former publisher of the Waterbury newspaper Exit 10, whose own home was inundated. “Waterbury Physical Therapy Group has been bunking with the Five Hills bike shop up at the head of Stowe Street,” she said. “They turned over part of the store so Family Physical Therapy could continue to treat patients.

“Central Vermont Medical Center moved the staff from Waterbury Medical to the hospital in Berlin, but opened a weekday office at Thatcher Brook Inn on Vermont 100.”

“We were without power,” said Wolstenholme, “but we opened and treated people working on cleanup during the daylight hours. We couldn’t have computers or anything and didn’t have water for a while, but if you were able to come in, it was a free clinic.”

He has found a permanent space for his new practice, MoveWell Spine & Sports LLC, at 46 South Main. It’s currently being renovated.

“The flood gave me a good opportunity to back out of buying this practice,” said Wolstenholme, “but I thought the way the Waterbury people pulled together for the flood, taking it through that, that the practice will survive here. They need care.”

When Pettengill and Enright returned home from their volunteer work, they wanted to somehow document this massive effort around the state and remind people that this cleanup will go on for a long time. They launched a website, www.facesofirene.com, with photos and stories and links to other sites.

Pettengill was Gov. Peter Shumlin’s official photographer on Vermont Clean Up Day on Oct. 22, and traveled to many of the places he and Enright had visited as volunteers. “It was a little weird being hired to do this, and being out in the field right next to the people we had helped,” he said.

“A lot of them were the same places we’d gone to, and it didn’t look like any progress had been made. That’s what was so weird, and that’s why we started the Faces of Irene. Even after almost two months of this, the work that needs to be done is so vast. Our neighbors still need our help.” •