Five years after Tropical Storm Irene, Vermonters recall what they weathered.
By Ian Aldrich
Aug 04 2016
Downtown Wilmington at the height of Irene’s flooding on August 28, 2011. This photograph was taken by local resident Eric Craven, who awoke that morning to find his own apartment filling with water.
“My girlfriend and I hastily evacuated and went to my parents’ house,” Craven says. “From there we journeyed downtown,
where we witnessed the town being flooded from start to finish.”
In the five years since Tropical Storm Irene barreled through New England on August 28, 2011, Vermont continues to recover. The storm claimed lives and homes. Businesses, too. And in certain sections of the state, entire towns were cut off for days from assistance. But Vermont and Vermonters are resilient. Communities quickly banded together and today the state is back on its feet.
Just a few weeks after Irene passed through, Yankee interviewed several Vermonters about their experience. We took their photograph and recorded their stories. Their memories were still raw, and for some, the future very much uncertain. Scroll down to read and hear their tales of hardship, survival, and hope.
Susan Haughwout | The Town Clerk
Of the many unsung heroes to surface during and after Tropical Storm Irene, town clerks played one of the most crucial roles in the recovery work. Perhaps none more so than Susan Haughwout, Wilmington, Vermont’s longtime town clerk who, with several other volunteers, raced to the Town Hall to save the town’s records from the floods that would end up devastating so much of the downtown.
For nearly two hours, in the midst of heavy rains and rising river waters, the crew schlepped documents from the town hall’s first floor vault to the building’s second floor, piling up office chairs with boxes and then rolling them on to an elevator. Not everything was saved of course, but by her own estimate, Haughwout, who was forced to abandon her car and escape to safety, along with her group saved some 95 percent of the town’s records.
“All I did was worry,” Haughwout says of the work. “And for once my worrying paid off because I knew something had to be done and I made the decision to go get it done. I called a bunch of people to help me. If they hadn’t come, this wouldn’t have happened.” And the consequences for that, she says, would have been detrimental to the town. “The buying and selling and financing of real estate would have come to a halt. If you can’t provide title, you can’t do business. You gotta have it. These are critical documents for the economy of any Vermont town.”
George & Jan Knowles | The Volunteers
One of the more heartwarming stories to emerge from the days and weeks that followed Tropical Storm Irene was the number of people who volunteered their time to help communities regain their footing. Some came from out of state, many others from neighboring towns.
George and Jan Knowles were part of the contingent. The retired South Newfane residents spent their first few days helping out neighbors before making their way to nearby Wilmington, one of the state’s hardest hit towns. The bulk of their hours were spent helping out Al and Suzanne Wurzberger, two longtime downtown business owners, who operate the 1836 Country Store as well as Norton House, a popular quilt shop. “They had a sign out asking for volunteers,” said George. “So we popped in and just asked, ‘What can we do?’
Florence Crafts | The Homeowner
“I didn’t know it would be this bad,” Florence Crafts says, stepping around the piles of personal items that consume much of her living room floor. Six weeks had passed since Irene had hit, and the 76-year-old widow had hardly scratched the surface on the work to get her life back. She was wearing clothes given to her by strangers, living with a friend in nearby Wardsboro, and wondering how or when she’d be able to move back into the only home she’s known for the last 55 years.
In November 1956 she and her husband, George, were just two weeks married when they moved into this 19th-century Cape and started fixing the old place up. The work was considerable. For nearly 30 years the house, which sits just off Route 100 in Wilmington had largely sat untouched after an earlier natural disaster, the flood of 1927, had nearly taken it down. When the Crafts scooped it up, the property had no electricity, no running water, just a lot of potential. Together they refinished rooms, put on an addition, and made it the kind of cozy family home that would welcome three children, and later a growing lineup of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even after George’s passing in June 2004, Florence never entertained the thought of moving elsewhere.
Then came Tropical Storm Irene. After vacating her house the morning of the storm, Crafts returned to a home that had withstood 35 inches of water. She didn’t have flood insurance and when I visited, a little more than a month after the storm hit, she wasn’t sure when she’d be able to move back into her home. At the time, Crafts’ days were consumed with cleaning up a lifetime of memories.
“It’s quite a project,” she said softly. “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Henry Wheeler | The Farmer
Henry Wheeler was only five when the Hurricane of ’38 rolled through New England and flooded communities, including his own hometown of Wilmington, Vermont. But the memories from that storm still resonate with him. The Wheeler farm—a dairy and maple sugaring operation set on 350 acres along Route 100—managed to survive ’38, thanks in part to a community of farmers who pitched in and helped Henry’s father get his farm back up and running. It was much the same following Tropical Storm Irene, with farmers again banding together to help the Wheelers repair roads and fences, and help ensure that Wheeler farm, now largely run by Henry’s two sons, Rob and John, could quickly overcome the damages and get back to the real work at hand.
“It was pretty awesome,” says Wheeler.
Richard Champine | The Survivor
I first met Richard Champine two weeks after Irene had rolled through. Not surprisingly he was still figuring out how to pick up the pieces of his life. His home of 14 years, a small apartment above a gas station in Killington at the junction of Routes 4 and 100, was destroyed by the fast moving river waters that flooded the area. So severe was the damage that Champine and his son, Richard Jr., abandoned the home at the height of the storm and spent the next 21 hours atop a car that was parked in front of the building. Two weeks after Irene, Richard was living temporarily at the neighboring Cedarbrook Motor Inn, where he works as a handyman. As he waited for an insurance adjuster to assess the property, he told me about his life during the storm and his escape.
Want more? Read Yankee’s story about Wilmington, Vermont, how its community was affected by Tropical Storm Irene in the July/August 2016 issue feature “Tropical Storm Irene Will Never Be Forgotten.”