Heavy rain poured down on the valley as Irene passed over Vermont on Saturday evening, August 27, and the early morning of Sunday, August 28. By daylight, the rain had tapered off to the level of an average shower, and many residents were breathing a sigh of relief.
But the worst was yet to come. Even as the volume of rainfall eased, the waterlogged hills were rapidly draining into the brooks and streams that feed the North Branch of the Deerfield River. The river and its tributaries, already swollen from more than 24 hours of rain, couldn’t contain the flow. The Deerfield River was already at flood stage by midmorning on Sunday, but at about 11 am, water was leaping over the bridge on Main Street in Wilmington. Behind the bridge, water was rushing over Jerry’s Deck at the Old Red Mill, and thundering against the back of Dot’s Restaurant. Water rushed into the village from the Old Red Mill parking lot. Water smashed through Hand Knits (now Beyond Imagination), flowing right through the building into the village. Water rushing around Dot’s shifted the building on its foundation and tore up a huge swath of paved driveway and road. Wilmington’s West Main Street was transformed into whitewater rapids. The torrent gutted buildings and even carried one building, Anne Coleman’s art gallery, downstream in one piece, before it broke up in the river. North of the village, Steve Butler’s Northstar Bowling Alley was filled almost to the ceiling with water and river silt.
Further north of the village, Ivana Taseva, a 20-year-old Macedonian woman, was drowned in the rising floodwaters when she and two others were swept away in an SUV. A memorial to Taseva is located overlooking the river on South Main Street.
The property damage was the same up and down the valley. Almost anyone with property near the river was affected. The destruction in Wardsboro left people homeless and the community cut off immediately after the storm. Houses and businesses along the North River in Jacksonville were flooded and the roads damaged. Readsboro’s water supply lines were cut when a footbridge near Lions Park was damaged. Roads and bridges in Halifax suffered extensive damage. Dover and East Dover roads were damaged, and nearly all of southern Vermont was without power.
All most Vermonters could do on Sunday was watch the destruction. But the next day, a bright, sunny Monday, people came together to begin cleaning up – the first step in a recovery that’s still ongoing.
Two years into the recovery, most of the damaged infrastructure has been repaired. Halifax, for instance, recently finished their last bridge project. Wilmington finished its last town infrastructure project with the completion of the Haynes Road bridge last year. Thanks to a quick response by federal, state, and local governments, work on infrastructure began almost immediately after floodwaters receded.
The rapid restoration of transportation and services is one of the things Vermont did well, says Rep. Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington. It allowed residents to focus on cleanup. “We did very well getting our basic lives back together after the flood,” Manwaring says. “There was a huge outpouring of money and volunteer help. It was astonishing how people were able to organize the whole recovery effort.”
Throughout Wilmington’s village business district, cleanup and repairs began immediately. And during the past two years, most of the buildings have been repaired. But the fresh paint may be masking a deeper damage. Many businesses, some that were struggling before the storm, weren’t able to recover. “In some cases, I think, Irene was the last straw, or next to the last straw,” Manwaring says. “And the winter after the storm wasn’t a great ski winter.”
“Southern Vermont was in economic trouble well before Irene,” acknowledges Laura Sibilia. She was the executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce when the flood hit, and had just accepted an economic development position at Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation where she’s currently employed. But Sibilia says one of the things that the valley did that resulted in a quick initial recovery was to institute an emergency business assistance coordinator (EBAC) program. The town of Dover volunteered to pay for the program, through which two people were hired to help guide business owners to the resources that were available for recovery. The two coordinators also reported back with a more accurate assessment of the damage that occurred. Ultimately, their work made more funding available to the valley. “It wasn’t what we expected when we went to the (Dover Selectboard) meeting,” Sibilia recalls, “but Buzzy Buswell said ‘We’re going to do it, and we’re (Dover) going to pay for it.’ It blew me away. The program was so effective at getting information to and from businesses.”
Throughout the recovery process, local business leaders have acknowledged that downtown businesses are interdependent; the more businesses there are in the village, the more commerce there is for everyone. The loss of Dot’s Restaurant, for instance, may have resulted in a reduction in the number of people shopping downtown. Dot’s, which has been extensively renovated, may reopen as soon as next month. But since the flood, the village has lost several other businesses, including restaurants, clothing stores, an inn, a bakery, a gift shop, a coffee shop, a bank, and others. One of the village’s anchor businesses, the Wilmington Home Center, closed its retail storefront earlier this year.
New businesses have opened (a new coffee shop opened this week) but they, and the businesses that survived the flood, are struggling. Gretchen Havreluk, who is Wilmington’s economic development specialist, says she has heard from business owners who are having a hard time this year. “I think this has been a hard summer,” she says. “Last summer things went well, but there has been a decline.”
Since the flood, Wilmington sought and received downtown designation from the state. Wilmington Works, the nonprofit organization administering Wilmington’s downtown program, along with the Wilmington Fund, VT, a nonprofit flood relief organization, and the town itself, are working on a number of economic development initiatives.
Havreluk, for instance, has been visiting businesses that have been successful in other areas and asking them to consider opening satellite businesses in Wilmington. So far, at least one business is seriously considering the idea. And, pending voter approval, the town is hoping to offer a tax stabilization program to sweeten the pot. Under the plan, businesses would see a gradual increase in their tax rate from improvements they might make to their properties, rather than a large, one-time increase. “Now is the time to open a business in Wilmington,” Havreluk says.
A number of valley families were displaced by the storm. Some, like Tim and Sherry Brissette, of Wilmington, are only now receiving compensation for homes destroyed in the flood. Their property on South Main Street will become public greenspace under a partially federally-funded buyout program. Property owners in other valley towns are also taking advantage of the program.
Some people, many who were just making ends meet before the flood, are struggling to survive now. Mary Jane Finnegan, who helps many valley residents through Twice Blessed, says the amount of need that she sees in the valley hasn’t returned to pre-flood levels. She says many people didn’t find help from state and federal sources, it was left to the community to help. “There was a lot of help from the community, a real outpouring,” she says.
But now, Finnegan says, the problems people are facing are tied to the problems the business community is confronting. Without those downtown restaurants, inns, and retail establishments, there aren’t enough jobs in the area. “The workforce isn’t able to work,” Finnegan says. “People have to find work elsewhere, and I don’t know that they are always able to move.”
Finnegan echoes Havreluk’s observation that, for some, things are looking more grim two years after the flood than they did a year after. “I thought the economy was getting better,” she says. “Overall, there are more tourists coming to the valley. But there are a lot more people struggling that weren’t struggling before Irene. They had permanent jobs, they had homes, and now they’ve had to start all over.”