This was no mere zombie plague

I spent the hurricane that savaged our state on the 29th floor of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. Now, that makes me sound like either an adrenaline junkie who had to be in the midst of the expected worst or — given what would occur here in Vermont — a rat who couldn’t get off a sinking ship fast enough.

I’m neither. I was actually just being a dad.

My daughter was scheduled to move into college in the city on Monday, August 29. Originally, it had been planned for Sunday, but the school postponed it a day because of the teeny-tiny detail that a hurricane was approaching. And because we did not want to be driving into Manhattan in the midst of a natural disaster, we battened down our house in Lincoln and then the three of us set off for New York on Saturday morning.

As my family and I studied the Hurricane Irene tracking maps or listened to forecasters predicting an Armageddon-like catastrophe in Manhattan, we prepared for the worst in our hotel room: My wife made sure that we had plenty of bottled water, we knew where the stairways were in the event we lost power, and where we would go if the windows blew out. (Answer to that last one? Under the beds.) I took care of the important matters: I learned from the concierge that if we experienced a complete system shut-down of the in-room entertainment system, the hotel would be showing movies in a windowless conference room on the first floor and they had brought in a cinema-quality popcorn maker.

Then, late Saturday afternoon, we wandered aimlessly around Times Square, staring at the incoming storm and savoring the strangeness of the closed stores. There were people, but not many, and no vehicles except for police cars and cabs. But the massive video screens were still functioning, and so it felt merely like a giant zombie plague had hit the city and wiped out a sizable chunk of humanity.

And we worried about our beloved Vermont. . .but not greatly. After all, the tracking maps showed the center crossing central Connecticut and New Hampshire. Lincoln, Vermont was barely inside the conical storm swath that (cruelly, in hindsight) resembled a horn of plenty.

In the end, Hurricane Irene would be largely a non-event in Manhattan, while Vermont would be devastated. As some of you have seen, the road to Lincoln was destroyed in precisely the same fashion as it was in the flood of 1998: It looked as if a giant Cloverfield monster gouged out a 40-foot-long, 20-foot deep section of pavement beside the river, leaving the gnarled guardrail hanging loosely in the air like a rope.

My wife and I got a sense of how badly the Vermont infrastructure was ravaged when we drove home on Monday. We left our daughter in Greenwich Village at lunchtime, and arrived at our house in Lincoln at 10:30 at night. What is usually a six-hour drive took almost ten hours, because we were detoured five times.

Now, Vermonters are no strangers to floods. Witness how we coped with the Lake Champlain flooding this year. Recall how Montpelier has learned to live with the Winooski River: A peaceful neighbor some seasons, and a psychopathic one others.

But this is different. I think we will all be haunted for a very long time by the cows dead and alive we saw floating downriver, and the caskets that were raised from the ground and left upended amidst the sediment and silt. By the covered bridges we saw smashed into kindling. By the towns, stranded like islands, that had to have food airlifted into them.

We will recover, because we are a hardy bunch. (We all owe our road crews, utility workers, and firefighters big, big thanks for what they have accomplished already.) But make no mistake: This was no mere zombie plague. This time we will take all the help we can get.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 4. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.