Water flows swiftly down Flat Sreet in downtown Brattleboro as the Whetstone Brook surged from its banks on Sunday. (Chris Bertelsen / Reformer)
Water flows swiftly down Flat Sreet in downtown Brattleboro as the Whetstone Brook surged from its banks on Sunday. (Chris Bertelsen / Reformer)
Monday August 29, 2011

MONTPELIER -- A raging river swept a woman away, officials told hundreds of people to leave their homes and a utility considered flooding the state's capital to save a dam after Tropical Storm Irene dumped torrential rain on Vermont on Sunday.

Parts of downtown Brattleboro and Bennington were under water, as were several smaller communities. Evacuations were ordered around the state and Red Cross and other shelters filled up.

"It's pretty fierce. I've never seen anything like it," said Michelle Guevin, who spoke from a Brattleboro restaurant after being evacuated from her home in the Williamsville section of Newfane. She said her house was high enough to be OK, but the fast-moving Rock River was washing out the road that went by it.

The capital city issued an ominous warning to residents: "A major emergency is on the horizon in Montpelier and is already occurring in other communities in the region."

Green Mountain Power warned that Montpelier could be flooded twice, once in the initial storm and again if the utility decides it must release water to preserve the structural integrity of the Mashfield Dam, about 20 miles up the Winooski River northeast of the capital.

Residents of 350 households as far downstream as East Montpelier were asked to leave Sunday evening as a precaution, GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said.

Releasing the water "would increase the flooding of the Winooski," Schnure said. "We don't want to do it.


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But if the dam were to be compromised, it would be a far greater effect." If it happens, it would take about four hours for water released to reach Montpelier. It was not clear how much water would be involved and how much damage it might do.

The storm began with rain early in the day, heaviest in the southern part of the state, moving slowing north as the day went on. By late afternoon, officials were reporting roads closed by flooding from Guilford on the Massachusetts line to Derby, which borders Quebec.

"This is the worst I've ever seen in Vermont," said Mike O'Neil, director of Vermont Emergency Management.

By 6 p.m., much of the state had picked up 4 to 6 inches of rain, with 1 to 2 more inches forecast before it was expected to taper off as the storm exited northern Vermont.

"It's really important that Vermonters take this storm seriously and stay inside," Gov. Peter Shumlin said at an afternoon news conference at Vermont Emergency Management headquarters.

"Don't stand next to rushing water, which is what she and her friend were doing at the time of her disappearance," Shumlin said of the woman swept away in Wilmington, whom authorities did not identify.

The center of Wilmington, a ski resort town at the junction of Vermont Routes 100 and 9, was flooded by the East Branch of the Deerfield River but could not be reached by either of those state roads due to washouts. Vermont National Guard members deployed in a rescue operation had to travel south of the state line and travel back north from Massachusetts, Shumlin said.

In Bennington, a team of firefighters had to be rescued after their boat tipped as they were pulling a man who was having a medical emergency from his home. The firefighters were OK, officials said; the man they were rescuing was airlifted to a hospital.

Across the state, there were reports of culverts and roads being washed away, large trees coming down and water entering people's homes. At about 3 p.m., rescue workers were dispatched to a stream in Grafton, where a woman was reported clinging to a tree in rushing water.

The storm's path shifted west of what was forecast initially, moving up through western Vermont and eastern New York state, rather than the Connecticut River valley.

Shumlin cautioned that Vermonters should stay at home even after the storm appears to have passed. Roads will be flooded and power lines down, creating continuing dangers, he said.

The storm did not produce winds as strong as had been feared, with gusts topping 50 mph but not getting to the 70 mph forecasters had predicted. Even the lesser winds were enough to topple trees onto power lines, and by mid-afternoon more than 25,000 electric customers without power, utility officials said. 

"Line crews have been restoring outages since early this morning, but in some areas extreme flooding conditions and road closures are hampering our ability to respond and restore power, especially in Dover and Wilmington," said Schnure.

The state ordered all nonessential employees to delay their start Monday until 10 a.m., and to check their email Monday morning for notifications of possible further delays. The University of Vermont in Burlington delayed the start of fall classes, which had been set for Monday, until Tuesday.