hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




‘We’re going to come back’

Recovery starts to take shape in a town slammed by Irene


Contributing writer

On a drizzly day in late September, downtown Wilmington was full of activity, but not the usual bustle of tourists and locals.

Some storefronts along the two main streets had been gutted down to the timbers. Others were boarded up. The front of the Old Red Mill Inn and Restaurant on Route 100 was intact, but the back along the Deerfield River was smashed. Debris lined the riverbanks and dangled in trees and brush, high above the current.

The apple-green trucks of Servpro, the disaster-recovery firm, seemed to be everywhere. Generators growled incessantly in the background. People in jeans, work boots and heavy gloves wielded shovels, lugged water-damaged insulation out of buildings, and carried in new lumber and drywall.

Landscapers labored at rebuilding the brick walkway to the front steps of the dignified Crafts Inn.

At the Wilmington Town Hall, on the corner of Routes 9 and 100, workers were emptying ruined furniture and other debris into a streetside Dumpster. On the side of the gray Victorian building, painted lines marked two high-water levels. One, about 5 feet above the sidewalk, is marked “Flood Level 1938.” The second, 6 inches higher, says “Flood Level 2011.”

Nearby was a paper sign: “Wilmington, where amazing happens.”

Fast and furious

When the remnants of Hurricane Irene dumped up to 11 inches of rain on Vermont at the end of August, Wilmington quickly became the southernmost in a string of disaster zones in the Green Mountains. Floodwaters from the storm wrecked buildings and roads, causing perhaps $1 billion in damage across the state.

Much of the devastation was concentrated in mountain towns along the center of Vermont, from Wilmington north to Wardsboro, Cavendish, Killington, Pittsfield and Rochester.

In contrast, towns along the Route 7 corridor from Bennington to Rutland quickly got back to nearly normal. As major state highways, including Routes 4 and 9, reopened to traffic in the weeks after the storm, commerce began to flow smoothly again. By late September, one of the biggest concerns of business leaders in Bennington, Manchester and Rutland was that leaf-peepers would stay away, scared off by dire reports of flood damage, when in fact most Vermont communities are open for business as usual.

But in Wilmington, 20 miles up into the mountains east of Bennington, getting back to business as usual won’t be so easy.

Wilmington Town Manager Fred Ventresco, just four months into the job, recalled how he went to the town hall the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28. Flood warnings were in effect because of heavy rains from Irene, and Ventresco and other town officials had just opened a town emergency operations center. The town clerk was already carting records up to the building’s second floor.

From the second floor, Ventresco watched the raging Deerfield River rise.

“It was amazing how quickly it happened,” he said, sitting at his desk in a former Rite Aid pharmacy that is being converted into a temporary town office. “The water went over the [Route 9] bridge just before noon.”

Ventresco said he was the last person to leave the town hall.

The water “receded almost as quickly,” Ventresco said. By then, “two of our major town departments” -- police and fire -- “were out of business.”

Firefighters drove their trucks from the fire station, on a flood plain below Twin Valley High School, to higher ground, but the town government, police and fire departments lost computers and other expensive equipment. Their buildings were left unusable.

Records moved to the upstairs of the town office were protected, but the ground floor was wrecked.

Damaged businesses

Lilias Hart has owned Quaigh Designs, a crafts gallery and woolens shop, on West Main Street (Route 9) for 44 years.

“I never had any flooding before,” she said as she paused from reconstructing the gardens outside her store.

All the same, she came to the store at 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 28 and started carrying stock to the second floor. Although she’s on the north side of Route 9, away from the river and on slightly higher ground, she still had 5 to 20 inches of water on her first floor. When it receded, her gardens had all but vanished, the sidewalk had dropped 3 feet, and woolens from her family’s mill in Scotland that she hadn’t been able to carry upstairs were ruined.

Lisa Sullivan, president of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, owns Bartleby’s Books with her husband, Phil Taylor. She was in their West Main Street store when the flood struck.

“The river was 11 feet under the bridge at 9 a.m.,” she said. “By 11 a.m., we had 4 feet of water in the store. Several hours later, it was all gone.”

John Pilcher, who owns the Wilmington Inn with his wife, Rachel, scrolled through flood photos he’d taken with his cell phone from the inn’s front lawn. The inn itself is on a slope, well out of danger, but “I watched Ann Coleman’s building wash down Main Street, hit a telephone pole, and demolish itself,” he said.

Coleman’s art gallery, on the north side of Main Street, was one of three downtown buildings destroyed by the flooding. As it washed away, Pilcher said, it was closely followed by a 1,000-gallon propane tank that got stranded on what remained of Route 9.

Disaster and rescue

The Deerfield River flows south through Wardsboro, Dover and Wilmington, where the valley narrows. Just downstream from the intersection of Routes 9 and 100, the river makes a hard right turn toward the Harriman Reservoir.

The narrow valley with its rushing river was ideal for water-driven industry, and Wilmington, which started on a hilltop a half-mile to the east, relocated to the valley bottom in the 1830s to take advantage of the power source. But the buildings were now vulnerable to high water.

When Irene hit, uprooted trees and other debris jammed the channel under the Route 9 bridge, forcing the water to back up and then overrun the bridge. A tributary from the east, Beaver Brook, also flooded and compounded the damage. Older residents told Ventresco it was the worst flooding they’d seen in their lifetimes.

Afterward, help came swiftly.

“The state was in quickly,” Ventresco said. “They did everything they could.”

The Vermont National Guard “came right off, secured the downtown and assisted the police department,” Ventresco said.

The town also got help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its state counterpart as well as the state police, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Windham Regional Commission.

“The power was off for a few hours,” said State Rep. Ann Manwaring, who lives in Wilmington. Most of the village had water and sewer service again in two days, and the rest had it the next day.

Considering the damage, “I don’t know how they did it,” Manwaring said.

Wilmington’s main link to the outside world, Route 9, was badly damaged both east and west of town. But state crews were able to reopen the highway for its entire length about two weeks after the flooding.

Sullivan said the management and staff at Mount Snow, the ski resort a few miles north on Route 100, “has been incredible.” The resort sent workers and mud-clearing machines to help begin the cleanup.

And streams of volunteers from all over the region arrived to do whatever needed doing, from throwing out ruined inventory to starting reconstruction.

“We have been so blessed with the number of volunteers,” Sullivan said. “Now we’re trying to transition from disaster mode into rebuilding mode.”

Busiest season approaching

October’s foliage season and the winter ski season normally are the busiest times of year for downtown Wilmington. The specialty shops, hotels, and restaurants that are the backbone of the town’s economy are “part of the reason people come to Mount Snow,” Sullivan said.

As a result, many local businesses are pushing to reopen as soon as possible, even if their stores are still a shambles. Sullivan said Bartleby’s Books and other merchants plan to hold tent sales. Some restaurants were back in business within days and others will reopen soon, she said.

Hart, at Quaigh Design, said she wanted three things when the waters receded: “my little umbrella tree, my gorgeous floors, and my cherry jewelry cabinets.” All three survived.

She said she planned to reopen Sept. 24, although repairs wouldn’t be finished.

“I’ll do that in November when it’s quieter,” she explained.

Hart has built a base of regular customers who collect the high-quality crafts she sells. Many called her after the storm, she said. While she was being interviewed for this story, a customer who was passing through dropped off a bag of bread from a bakery in Nanuet, N.Y.

Labor alone won’t rebuild Wilmington’s downtown. Most property owners in the flooded areas didn’t have flood insurance, and those who did only had it on their buildings, said Pilcher, the owner of the Wilmington Inn.

Five local funds are accepting donations for affected families, small businesses, and repair of infrastructure in Wilmington and Dover.

On the night after the flood, the Pilchers, Chris and Steve Jalbert of the Après Vous Restaurant on South Main Street, and musician Pete Miles decided to organize a fund-raising concert, promptly dubbed Floodstock. The two-day event, held Sept. 23 and 24 at Mount Snow and the Adams Farm in Wilmington, featured 11 bands from around New England, food, drink and the raffle of a Belted Galloway cow. All costs were either donated or paid for by sponsors, and all proceeds were to be distributed directly to businesses damaged by Irene.

The Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival, scheduled for Sept. 23-25 in the Mount Snow Valley, was canceled.

“That left a big hole,” Pilcher said. “Floodstock will give people who are here something to do. It won’t save the town, but it will be a good start.”

Finding a new normal

Pilcher said three downtown buildings were destroyed outright, and that all the remaining buildings except one had been given permission to rebuild.

He estimated that about half of the two-dozen businesses closed by the flood are committed to reopening.

“We want to get the lights back on and activity in the buildings,” Pilcher said. “We want businesses to reopen before winter sets in.”

The costs of the storm have yet to be tallied, Ventresco said. An immediate need was to dispose of flood debris. The town has paid about $45,000 so far to contractors for disposal fees.

“We’re hoping to get some reimbursement for town employee overtime from FEMA,” Ventresco said.

The approach of winter is forcing a fast rebuilding schedule, which means some repairs will be temporary, Ventresco said.

“We’ve been making good progress,” he said. “It’s coming back quickly.”

Manwaring said the town has “a huge amount of energy.”

“I think we’re going to come back,” she said. “It may not be the way we were. I’m not sure it’s understood where the money will come from.”

Hart pointed to the importance of preserving Wilmington’s architectural heritage. Unlike classic rural Vermont towns of white clapboard buildings around a town green, Wilmington’s builders created a collection of almost every important architectural style from the 1760s to the 1930s, she said.

“It’s so important that we rebuild,” Hart said. “The flood was devastating, but the resurgence is at a tremendous pace.”

Just down West Main Street, Sullivan was conferring with construction workers in the gutted first floor of Bartleby’s Books.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “But we’ll get there.”


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