Irene brings worst flooding in century to Vermont

August 29, 2011 - 5:40 PM
Irene

Gov. Peter Shumlin, of Vermont, talks with reporters during a visit Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, in Brattleboro, Vt., after heavy rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused flash floods in the downtown area. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

WATERBURY, Vt. (AP) — The remnants of Hurricane Irene turned placid rivers and streams into raging torrents across parts of Vermont and upstate New York on Monday, closing hundreds of roads, destroying dozens of bridges and cutting off entire communities in the worst flooding some areas have seen in a century.

Irene dumped up to 11 inches on parts of Vermont and more than 13 inches on some areas of New York — a deluge that quickly overwhelmed waterways, storm sewers and drainage systems. At one point, the floodwaters were climbing so fast that Vermont officials feared they might have to take the extraordinary step of flooding the state capital of Montpelier to relieve pressure on a dam.

"We prepared for the worst and we got the worst in central and southern Vermont," Gov. Peter Shumlin said. "It's just devastating — whole communities under water. ... We're tough folks here in Vermont, but Irene really ... hit us hard."

The governor and Sen. Patrick Leahy toured some of the most devastated communities by helicopter Monday, but because the floodwaters cut off many of those towns, the full extent of the damage could take days to emerge. In at least a dozen places, neither utility crews nor emergency vehicles could get in to offer help. President Barack Obama has declared the state a federal disaster area.

Video posted on Facebook showed a 141-year-old covered bridge in Rockingham, Vt., swept away by the roiling, muddy Williams River. In another video, an empty car somersaulted down a river in Bennington.

"I didn't think the water would ever get that high. I can't believe it," said Henry Shattuck of Bellows Falls, Vt., describing the remains of the bridge over the Williams River. "I've seen people crying because it's gone. It hurts me, too, because, like I said, I've been over that bridge many, many times."

"It's pretty fierce. I've never seen anything like it," said Michelle Guevin, who spoke from a Brattleboro restaurant after leaving her home in nearby Newfane.

Almost 50,000 utility customers were without power, and at least two bodies have been recovered. One was believed to be a woman who fell into the Deerfield River while watching flooding in Wilmington. The other was one of two men lost when they went to inspect the inlet to the city's water system.

Chris Cole of the Agency of Transportation says part or nearly all of a dozen communities remain unreachable: Bennington, Cavendish, Chester, Granville, Killington, Ludlow, Mendon, Middletown Springs, Rochester, Stockbridge and Wilmington.

As floodwaters pressed on an earthen dam 20 miles north of Montpelier, officials feared they might have to open floodgates that would add to the water pouring into the state capital of Montpelier to relieve pressure. But by Monday morning, the rain eased and with it the strain on the dam.

At the state complex on the south end of town, offices were empty Monday but a few workers stopped by to check on damage. And one, flooded out of her home across South Main Street, stopped by to take a shower.

In Waterbury, the Winooski River and a drainage swale leading to it overflowed their banks, flooding low-lying areas for the full length of the town. The downtown portion of Main Street was covered in mud.

Even the Vermont Emergency Management headquarters at the south end of Waterbury had to evacuate early Monday and move to federal offices in Burlington.

At the other end of Waterbury, Justine Barup's voice broke as she surveyed her silt-covered front yard.

"It's a mess, a total disaster," she said.

At the Waterbury Area Food Shelf, an agency in the business of helping others now needed help itself.

"We had five people walk in this morning and say, 'What can we do to help?" Director Cara Griswold said. Volunteers pulled food and toiletries off the shelves closest to the floodwaters. The facilities' freezers stopped working, but nearby grocery stores offered to keep items deemed worth saving frozen.

But with the floor and yard covered in mud, "it's going to be a rough week," she said.