If you live in the Northeast – especially Vermont and coastal New Jersey – you still remember vividly where you were the last weekend in August 2011, when a seriously dislikable shrew named Irene roared ashore. A hurricane when she hit New Jersey and a tropical storm when she reached Vermont, Irene devastated the two states. The storm pummeled the New Jersey coastline in the early hours of Sunday morning and then brutalized the Green Mountains in the afternoon.
My village, Lincoln, was spared. A swath of the single paved road into the town was destroyed by the surging New Haven River, which runs parallel to the pavement – imagine a giant taking a fifty foot bite out of the asphalt – but otherwise there was little damage. But nearby villages, notably Rochester, were devastated. Whole parts of our state were overwhelmed by some of the worst flooding in state history. (And we are a state with impressively horrific flooding in our past. Exhibit A? 1927. Exhibit B? 1938. Exhibit C? 1998. There are others. You get the point.)
Now Rutland journalist Peggy Shinn has given us a gripping history of Irene’s effect on Vermont in her first book, “Deluge.” And what a story it is. Focusing on a few of the hardest hit villages, especially Rochester and Pittsfield in central Vermont and Wilmington in the south, she captures with you-are-there clarity the spectacular horror of the flashfloods that uprooted buildings and carried away cars, and then, in the weeks that followed, the inspiring ways that Vermonters banded together, took care of one another, and rebuilt the state. It’s absolutely riveting.
What makes the book so difficult to put down is her cinematic recreation of the cataclysm. First, there is her chronicle of the rising waters. It’s not merely the bridges that are reduced to kindling by raging whitewater or the vehicles tossed about like Matchbox cars: It’s the human terror. There is Heather Grev in Pittsfield, waist deep in surging water that minutes earlier had been her front yard, unable to move and hanging desperately onto a rope. Meanwhile, the nearby Subaru is carried away. There are Mike and Mike Garofano, a father and son from Rutland – the father a part of the city’s Public Works Department – driving off to check an intake valve that’s a part of the reservoir and meeting a nightmarish storm surge on their way there.
But there are also the stories of how the state recovered, and accounts of the heroism and selflessness that marked the effort. There is Craig Mosher of Killington on the phone with a state official in the wake of the destruction, planning to use his own bulldozer to start rebuilding U.S. 4 near Mendon. Mosher owns an excavating company. When the official informs Mosher that he is not an approved state contractor, he replies, “I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling you what I’m doing.” Then, pure and simple, “he hung up and began rebuilding U.S. 4.”
Assisting him was one of Mosher’s employees, Mark Bourassa of Rutland. How badly did Bourassa want to help? When Mosher asked him how in the world he had reached him – the usual roads, by this point, were long gone – Bourassa replied he had driven south on Vermont 103 (damaged, but not impassable) to Ludlow, turned north on Vermont 100, and then driven until the road ended in a washout in Plymouth. There he left behind his truck, walked six miles, climbed across a second washout, “borrowed” another truck he found waiting on the other side, drove it a mile until the road ended again in yet another river-carved chasm, and finally walked the rest of the way to Mosher.
Shinn’s book is filled with tales just like this. It’s not merely a gripping account of the storm; it made me proud, once again, to be a Vermonter.
* * *
“Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene”
by Peggy Shinn
University Press of New England. $27.95
* * *
This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 8, 2013. Chris’s new novel, The Light in the Ruins, was published this summer.