The Wrath of Irene
by Carl Tischbein
As I drove up Route 14 through Hartford, the urban areas of White River Junction slowly faded away into a depressing sight. As the road wrapped around the frequent bends in the White River, I witnessed the destruction build up. It was like I was entering a war zone. Trees along the bank of the river had fallen and were lying tangled on the ground. Recreation fields were covered in many feet of mud and silt, graded like new construction sites. Houses had slid off their foundations. Cars sat with their tires buried in the mud, to be dug out another day.
The weather was brisk and the skies were a dull gray, and a steady drizzle landed softly on the windshield. Wisps of fog were rolling in, and the wind was picking up. The weather closely resembled that of August 28, the day Hurricane Irene blew into the area. That afternoon, I had sat in my home in Etna, oblivious to what was happening just 30 minutes away. While homes were destroyed, families were separated, possessions were lost, and pets were swept away, I was watching TV, thinking about what a false alarm Hurricane Irene was. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As a citizen of Sharon, Mr. Lavigne, an HHS science teacher, was in the center of the destruction. An edited version of an interview with him follows.
Broadside: We’ve all heard a lot about the devastation in the area. Can you tell us about your own experiences?
Mr. Lavigne: We were getting a lot of rain all day, and at about 6:30pm, one of our neighbors’ basements had collapsed. We live on higher ground, so my wife and I went down to help them out. Unfortunately, the water was rising faster than we thought, and their house was pretty far away, so we couldn’t get to their house. An elderly couple, ages 78 and 79, live at the bottom of our hill. At around 7:00, we started splitting up the families and moving them into our houses on higher ground. The older gentleman did not want to leave his house, so I offered to stay with him. At that point, we could still walk around his yard; the water was only about ankle-deep. He had a generator, so we sat down together and watched TV for a while. After a while, his basement windows had blown in and water was rushing into the basement. We talked about it, but he still wasn’t ready to leave. His basement filled up in about 25 minutes, so we went outside and walked around the house to make sure everything else was OK. While we were outside, we heard someone yelling for help. Logs, hay bales and cars were just floating by. It was dark and hard to hear, but we all tried to figure out who it was and where the call was coming from. I volunteered to tie a rope around my waist and walk across the yard. I got to the edge of the elderly gentleman’s yard, and the water was up to my neck. It was cold and didn’t feel safe, so I went back. One of the neighbors got out two kayaks, and I kayaked through across the yards toward the voice. The voice was coming from a tree, and a woman was in the tree, with just her neck and face above water. I paddled over and calmed her down. I had to basically drag her into the kayak: at that point, she was hypothermic and hard to move. I then paddled back to land, and by that time the elderly gentleman was ready to leave. In just over two hours, the water had risen from about ankle depth to about four feet high. We all went to the houses on higher ground and tried to get some sleep.
Broadside: How many people stayed with you that night? What was it like the next morning?
Mr. Lavigne: We had five other people stay with us. Nobody got much sleep that night, we were all so overwhelmed. The next morning, the river had receded, but there was a lot of mud all over. Many people went back to their houses, but a lot of their possessions were gone. We were all just overwhelmed. And we didn’t get our power back for another week.
Broadside: How do you think the storm will impact your area in the future?
Mr. Lavigne: Many people have lost everything. FEMA provides up to $30,000, which helps, but isn’t a lot. In addition, most people didn’t have flood insurance, so it’s been hard. Everyone’s slowly rebuilding, trying to get places livable before winter.
Broadside: What is your impression of the response efforts so far?
Mr. Lavigne: Because much of Route 14 was washed out, it was impossible to get into the area until about midnight. That was when some of the rescue crews started arriving. But it’s been great to see everyone band together to help out. The surrounding communities have been doing a great job raising money and holding food drives. Some schools have even closed for a day to let the students help out with relief efforts. It’s been disappointing, though, how quickly the media has moved in and out. They’re gone before some folks even have a chance to start digging out their basements.
Broadside: At this point, with so many different ways to help out, what sort of assistance do you think is needed most?
Mr. Lavigne: It’s been great that people have raised money and collected food and goods, but right now I think the thing we need most is hands-on labor. We really need people to shovel and move and do all of the things that money and food can’t do. We have local volunteer stations, but we have to rebuild before winter, so any help would be appreciated. Whether you come as an individual or as a group, most people could use a hand with some of the physical work that is required at this point in time.