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A Vermont Photographer's Thoughts

Irene in Richmond   September 9, 2011

Irene in Richmond

Rt looking toward Mobil and park and ride.

Nearly two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene most of Vermont has returned to a semi-normal routine. Those communities left isolated and severely damaged by the storm are still cleaning up and may never get back to life before Irene, but will create a new normal. I suspect all of us will never forget Irene or the lesson she taught us about the power of water.

I spent most of that rainy Sunday glued to my computer...looking at images and stories posted on Face Book about the early damage. I saw the early shots from Wilmington as the rains destroyed the roads accessing the town and rushed through Main St. My background noise through all this was the sound of my husband wet vacuuming our basement and the sound of the sump pump. We sit on top of a hill but tend to get the water running down from above us. Still I never really worried about us or Richmond.

That changed later Sunday when my husband brought back a shot of the Winooski River moving closer to the bottom of the bridge. Later there was a posting from a friend who lived near the river saying she and her husband and family were going to stay in Burlington. At that point I knew Richmond was in trouble.

Early Monday my husband headed down to the village with his video camera. He is chief photographer at Channel 3 and had brought his gear home for the weekend. Minutes after he left he called and suggested I come down to the town center. I grabbed my camera and walked down the hill with my son. Just before I left I received a boil water notice from the town by email. By the time I got down to the town center I understood why.

My son and I were greeted by the image of water lapping up against the side of our Town Center and houses between that building and the bridge seemingly floating in the water. In front of us lay a huge body of water reaching all the way to the bridge and I assume beyond. In the distance I could see Volunteer's Green and the playground covered in water with only a few feet of the equipment showing above the water. The concert shell..sitting on a hill near the river was the only thing visible. On the street nearest the river the water lapped about midway up the street sign. Pictures from earlier in the day showed it within inches of the bottom. I watched a home owner in waders make his way to dry land..the water then seemed to come over his knees. What was unseen to me was the water that had surrounded our water treatment plant and had creeped up to the far end of several streets near the center of the village.

There were many villagers standing in shock looking at the damage,snapping pictures. Someone directed me to the back of the town center where the post office sits. The back parking lot was underwater. The fire department was already pumping water out of the basement where our teen center was located. By then I heard that Rt 2 and the Mobil Station and Park and Ride were under water and in the other direction the road was flooded heading south toward Jonesville. I hitched a ride with a friend to both sites and was stunned with image. On the way we saw plastic covered hay bales floating in a field. About then I began to fathom the damage that had been done.

I went home and posted my pictures. Friends sent them to other friends and I received many comments of disbelieve of the destruction and appreciation of sharing and informing. They joined the many images showing Irene's destructive path that appeared on many social media sites.

The rest of the day and week passed in a blur of balancing work with helping with the clean up and letting others know how they could help. Two close friends including the one who evacuated early Sunday suffered major damage to their homes. Many homes were damaged some losing foundations. In Jonesville and on the other side of the river the story was the same. Several businesses and farms suffered damage.

I joined the large groups of volunteers in grubby clothes helping to dig out the muck from basements, cleaning off valuables and hauling mud covered possessions out of homes. I remember cleaning shoes and boots the first day when I saw a white platter covered in mud. I became obsessed with getting that piece sparkling white.
Didn't happen. The mud clung to little grooves in the dish. I remember standing in line as we moved possessions from a basement handing off the items to each other. I grabbed part of a stereo system covered in mud and put in a pile with other muck covered electronics. I remember cleaning valued old tools at a friends home with others when she placed a doll's face on the tarp and said this was all that remained of a doll her Mother had had. If you helped with clean up as I suppose most of you have you know important these family items are to those who have lost most of their possessions.

I never did pick up the camera again to record the aftermath of Irene. Couldn't bring myself to record everyone's possessions laid out on lawns or the crumbled pieces of walls and foundations. However I do appreciate those who did record Vermonters as they worked to recover from Irene. Those images will serve as a reminder of the power of nature and how easily our lives can be forever changed by it.

Jonesville...Rt 2

Jonesville...Rt 2

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