aftermath: Tropical Storm Irene

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Stockbridge residents hold a select board meeting at a local diner after losing their town offices to Tropical Storm Irene to discuss their options and ability to acquire federal assistance on Thursday Oct. 6, 2011.

Unbelievable and unexpected devastation swept through Vermont when Tropical Storm Irene arrived on Aug. 28, 2011.  We all prepared for heavy winds, power outages and minor flooding, but nobody expected the volume of water that poured over the state and broke the banks of our beautiful rivers.  The small town of Stockbridge, located in central Vermont, was hit hard.  Reporter Candace Page and I set our sights on this town in the months following Irene.  After several visits and many accounts later, Candy produced a beautiful narrative recreating the events that took place during and after the storm.  Candy and I focused on Chalet Village, a small community along the Tweed River.  The modest A-frame homes were once vacation retreats, but have since evolved into year-round homes for many residents.  Tropical Storm Irene knocked the homes from their foundations, swept hot tubs downstream, flooded kitchens with foul, thick, mud and left the families homeless.

I’ve included a small sampling of photos (including the one above taken at a makeshift Stockbridge select board meeting at a diner after the town hall was destroyed) as well as a video which is posted below.  I encourage you to check out the online article for a beautiful and in-depth scrolling, narrative timeline built by our photo editor, Ryan Mercer.  The timeline format compliments Candy Page’s detailed account of what happened on Aug. 28th, historic photos and photos taken during the storm.  For now I’ll tease you with the opening to Candy’s story.  Chapter One:

Dotty Casciotta fell asleep each night to the music of water dancing over stone.

The Tweed River bubbled past her bedroom window, rippling across the valley floor after its swift descent from the eastern slopes of the Green Mountains. She loved that sound, so peaceful in its constant rush.

She stubs out her first Marlboro Ultra Light of the day and pats her thin hair, washed an auburn brown that takes a decade off her 80 years. Her raspy voice is colored by the nasal vowels of Long Island.

FULL STORY: Hard lessons of the Tweed: With peace, a river beckons

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Dottie Casciotta, 80, reflects on the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene while standing next to what remains of her home in Chalet Village.

I shot Dottie’s portrait during the first snowfall this season.  As temperatures dropped and flurries began to fly, I worked as quickly as possible to keep 80-year-old Dottie out of the elements.  Both of our noses were frozen, but Dottie was tough.  Working in an area no longer connected to electricity I had to improvise with my light kit.  I knew before I arrived in Stockbridge how I wanted to set up my light, but I wasn’t sure how I would power.  I ran some tests back home with my car battery to make sure I could sync up the system and was successful.  When I arrived in Stockbridge, however, that was a different story.  I was using 100 feet of extension cords which slowed the lights recycle rate.  As my engine idled, the light took over a minute to reload.  We had to work silently so that I could hear the light’s beep alerting me that it was ready to fire.  I fired off only 5 frames since the weather was becoming more ugly and the lights were taking too long to reload.  Three hours of driving for a 5 minute shoot seems crazy, but I got the image I was hoping for.  Many thanks to Dottie.

This story was published several weeks ago after an intense scramble to finalize edits, photo selections and layouts after what felt like an eternity of reporting and collecting.  It was hard to know when to stop.  My hat goes off to Candy for pulling an incredible volume of information into a well-written story.  I know it was not easy.  Months of phone calls, long trips south to Stockbridge, overnight stays and dodgy drives up flood-ravaged roads, Candy built a narrative the Free Press can be proud of.  The sights were shocking and upsetting as you could see the soaked and muddied remains of people’s hard work and memories strewn about the landscape.  The flood scenes never settled in my mind; I was always mildly overwhelmed by the size of Irene.  It was just too much.  I found myself squinting through acres of rubble, mud, collapsed roadways and ravines, trying desperately to understand how the landscape looked before Aug. 28th.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but what surprised me was how open, honest and welcoming all the affected families were.  I half expected closed doors and harsh stares as we walked into people’s lives during an understandably difficult time, but no.  Everyone welcomed us and offered us whatever they could.  We were invited us into what was left of their homes; they were anxious to share their stories.

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Don Fielder surveys the damage to his riverfront home in Bethel on Thursday Oct. 6, 2011. Two walls were blown out by raging flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene destroying the home he spent years building.

The Stockbridge package ran over three days and included historic details as well as personal accounts from the flood.  Chapter Two captured Tropical Storm Irene as it took place.  Recreating an event like Irene was difficult, especially through photos.  We were of course unable to be in Stockbridge during the flood and for several days following as the town was cut off from neighboring communities after losing major road ways, one of which re-opened today exactly four months after the storm.  I lined up a series of portraits in an attempt to capture the mood and unsettled state of flux many of these people were experiencing.  Most families had secured temporary or rental accommodations, but their lives were in boxes and uprooted for an indefinite period of time.

Candy’s Chapter Two story captured the evacuation of Chalet Village as people left, only to learn later and in a state of shock, how much water actually broke the banks of the Tweed River.  One couple did not escape and rode out the storm inside their small A-frame home.  This is their story:

Back at Chalet Village, the Reddicks had just escaped, driving down Schaff-Haus Drive with the water halfway up their hubcaps.

Next door, Barcomb and Cotton soon were marooned on the second floor of their home. This was not just inundation, a river pouring over its banks like an overfull glass of water. This was a flash flood with a current strong enough to batter its way into the first floor of the A-frame.

The house filled with terrifying sounds. Outside, the river roared. Unknown objects banged against the house. Inside, the floating refrigerator slammed into the stove and water sloshed against the walls like ocean waves on rocks.

Cotton looked out the window. Rocketing toward the house like a missile was Dotty Casciotta’s 10-by16-foot shed. The Tweed had seized the building, flipped it over and launched it downstream.

“I don’t want to die,” Cotton wailed. She started to run down the hall, but there was nowhere to go. She began to pray.

FULL STORY: Hard lessons of the Tweed: With untold force, a river ruins

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Frank Lambert, 84, of Bethel pauses from his work at his chainsaw repair shop. Lambert’s business remains open every day despite still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene.

Besides a series of portraits and aftermath photos, my major contribution to this project was a video I shot and produced to accompany the in-depth narrative.  The images are stronger than what I could write, but more importantly, the voices of those affected really resonate.  The tone, even a month after the storm, is important to hear.  Take a couple minutes to sit down with this one.

 

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Jenn Merrill sits with her son, Wyatt, 10, amongst what is left of their personal belongings still packed away in boxes after a recent move to a rental home. Merrill lived in Chalet Village in Stockbridge until her home was destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene leaving herself and her two children homeless.

Jenn is an incredible person.  I met her in a diner parking lot before the impromptu select board meeting one night and scheduled a time to meet with her at her destroyed home in Chalet Village.  Driving down a few days later to make this meeting I slowly pulled into the A-frame community, careful not to bottom out my car on the uneven, flood-worn road, to find Jenn and her neighbors standing around a huge bonfire.  The kindling?  Items from their homes, their furniture, their mattresses and destroyed bits of their lives thrown into the inferno.  They burned because they had to.  Hauling the massive pile of trash would cost money they no longer had.  Feeling helpless and anxious the neighborhood began burning to try to do something, anything to keep moving forward.

Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont

Don and Terry Reddick of Stockbridge pause to watch the bonfire they created to burn the items destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in Chalet Village on Saturday Oct. 8, 2011.

The final chapter in the Stockbridge series began with the select board meeting.

Chairman Mark Pelletier leaned his elbows on the formica diner counter and called the Oct. 6 meeting of the Stockbridge Selectboard to order.

“So, how is everybody doing?” he asked the 15 people crowded into the narrow room.

No one said anything.

The answer was scrawled on a blackboard once used to announce the diner’s daily specials: “Damn damn Irene.”

FULL STORY: Hard lessons of the Tweed: Leaving lives upended, a river reshapes

 

Thank you, thank you for taking the time with this post.  Events like Irene thankfully do not happen often, but when they do this is absolutely what our newsroom hopes to create in times of crisis.  If for nothing else, Irene was a reminder to everyone both affected and not, that Vermont is an incredible force populated by incredible people.

 

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