Tami Rabideau snaps a photo with her cell phone and Rocky Smith watches as the muddy water of the Whetstone Brook crashes spectacularly over the the last
Tami Rabideau snaps a photo with her cell phone and Rocky Smith watches as the muddy water of the Whetstone Brook crashes spectacularly over the the last falls before joining the Connecticut River in Brattleboro on Sunday. (Chris Bertelsen / Reformer)
Monday August 29, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Tropical Storm Irene lashed Windham County with torrential rains Sunday, causing washouts and bridge closures and forcing the evacuation of dozens of residents from low lying areas.

Downtown Brattleboro was closed for a portion of the day as the Whetstone Brook spilled over and flooded Flat Street.

The brook turned into a raging torrent of muddy water with logs and debris trapped in the raging water as it spilled in to the Connecticut River.

"This has been a devastating event that is going to affect every single community in Vermont," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said he hoped to be in Brattleboro Monday with his Secretary of Transportation to assess the damage.

Two residents watch from above as the Rock River carves away the bank under one of the abutments of the Rt. 30 bridge in Williamsville Station on Sunday.
Two residents watch from above as the Rock River carves away the bank under one of the abutments of the Rt. 30 bridge in Williamsville Station on Sunday. (Chris Bertelsen / Reformer)
"The stories I am hearing from all around the state are unbelievable. Right now we are in the middle of this, and our first order of business is keeping people safe. We will get through this, but it looks like it is going to take time to clean up."

Fire crews were on the scene at Glen Street, an area of West Brattleboro by the Whetstone Brook particularly prone to flooding all Sunday morning. By 10 a.m., they had evacuated the residents of the mobile home park at the end of the street. Within an hour of that, as water gushed through the mobile home park, inflicted great damage and crept higher up the street, fire crews advised all residents of Glen Street to evacuate.


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One of those residents was Jon Potter, arts editor of the Reformer, who took his family to higher ground at a family member's house on Western Avenue.

"I am extremely grateful to the firefighters and other rescue crews who were on the scene and handled everything so calmly and professionally," he said. "They made a very stressful time a lot more bearable."

Latchis Hotel customers were evacuated in the afternoon as the flood waters spilled into downtown Brattleboro

Shumlin said he has been monitoring the situation around the state and was shocked at the level of destruction that the storm caused.

Even though emergency officials were aware of the storm's track, which placed Vermont right in the cross hairs of the hurricane, downgraded to a tropical storm before reaching Vermont, Shumlin said small communities across the state were overwhelmed by the powerful rains that slammed the region.

"We are a small state with a lot of courage, but when you have a disaster of this magnitude you can only do so much," Shumlin said. "In a state where there is nothing but hills and valleys, water moves quickly, and when it builds up, there is nowhere else it can go. Everyone has done a heroic job handling it. But when it comes down quicker than we can handle it no level of preparation would make it better."

Shumlin already declared a state of emergency and said Federal Emergency Management Agency funds would be requested for most of the state.

Officials said one person was missing in Wilmington after fast moving waters swept away a young woman.

"This is an extremely dangerous situation," Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag said Sunday afternoon. "Waters will not crest for several more hours due to rain runoff, so the water levels will continue to rise.

Route 100 in West Wardsboro was washed out. (Don MacGillivray/submitted photo)
Route 100 in West Wardsboro was washed out. (Don MacGillivray/submitted photo)
Once the water has receded the town will begin the process of evaluating roads."

In Brattleboro culverts and bridges completely washed out and a pipe in the town's sewer system broke and leaked raw sewage into the Whetstone Brook in West Brattleboro.

Flat Street, Frost Street and Elm Street were under two feet of water and bridges all over town were either damaged or destroyed.

Water levels at the Whetstone Brook kept rising throughout the day, and breached Route 9/Western Avenue at at least two and possibly more locations. One such place was just west of the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont, where Adam Silver and his family were making sure artworks there were safe and dry. Other neighbors came to the site to gawk at the damage and marvel at the storm's power.

Members of the Vermont National Guard arrive in West Brattleboro. (Justin Rancourt/via Facebook)
Members of the Vermont National Guard arrive in West Brattleboro. (Justin Rancourt/via Facebook)
 "That's my front yard," one resident cried out sadly, seeing it completely under water.

"A significant amount of Brattleboro's infrastructure was damaged today," said Brattleboro Fire Department Deputy Chief Steven Nelson, who is also the Emergency Management Coordinator. "There has been a lot of damage and we are going to be assessing how bad this was for the next few days."

Nelson was joined by police, fire and emergency response officials in the basement of the Municipal Center, as they monitored the deteriorating situation throughout the day.

Residents of Westgate and Melrose Terrace were evacuated earlier in the day and sent to the Red Cross emergency shelter at Brattleboro Union High School.

Early Sunday, other residents in West Brattleboro, near Sunset Road and in the vicinity of Academy School, were told to leave their homes as the Whetstone Brook crested and sent muddy water across Western Avenue.

Later, as the rain eased and people left their houses to survey the damage, one passer-by remarked to another after seeing the damage done at the end of Glen Street, "It ain't pretty, man. God bless those people."

Academy School was opened as an emergency shelter before residents were allowed to assess the storm damage to their properties.

All over Windham County emergency response officials, road crews and volunteers worked to save individuals.

Route 9 from Brattleboro to Wilmington was closed and the Deerfield River Valley suffered significant damage.

A member of the Dover Police Department said downtown Wilmington was under water and throughout the Deerfield Valley roads were closed.

Route 100 was shut down and Vermont Emergency Management said there were reports of stranded motorists along the flooded roads.

In Dover, five roads were closed by 2 p.m. and emergency shelters were opened at the Summit Hotel at Mount Snow and at Dover Elementary School.

Officials across Southeastern Vermont were preparing for Hurricane Irene for days as the powerful storm formed over the Atlantic and then worked its way up the East Coast.

By the time the storm hit Vermont, its winds had diminished from hurricane strength but significant rain fell across the region and the most damage was caused by raging waters.

Vermont Emergency Management Spokesman Mark Bosma said crews all over the state were working to keep the roads safe and make sure no one was left in their homes if water was rising nearby.

"Emergency services are stretched thin and travel is difficult," Bosma said. "You may not get help for a long time if you are in trouble."

Bosma said there were numerous reports of cars being swept away on flooded roads.

At 3 p.m. the Vermont National Guard sent quick response teams to Brattleboro, to the Armory in Westminster, and to other a sites around the state to rescue people trapped behind quickly rising waters.

Vermont National Guard Spokesman Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow said Vermont Emergency Management requested the guard troops to support evacuations and provide traffic control in areas where roads were washed out or under water.

In Marlboro, Augur Hill Road, Adams Cross Road, Higley Hill Road, Grant Road and Butterfield Road were all closed, while a washout spread across Route 30 in Dummerston, stalling traffic for a portion of the day.

The covered bridge in Dummerston was also closed and parts of South Newfane were under water.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the new Williamsville covered bridge had be washed away.

In Winhall, Route 30 near the Fire Station was completely washed out and Winhall Selectman William Schwartz said only emergency vehicles were being allowed on many of the town's roads.

Many events had been cancelled due to inclement weather on Sunday, including church services throughout the county and farmers' markets.

School at Twin Valley middle and high schools, Whitingham and Halifax Elementary and Deerfield Valley Elementary, which was to begin Monday, has been canceled. Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said school at Brattleboro Union High School would open on schedule Tuesday, even if the high school continues to be used as an emergency shelter.

Green Mountain Power Spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said the extremely difficult road conditions in southern Vermont were making it hard for crews to get to downed lines.

Schnure said Sunday afternoon that about 10,000 GMP customers were without power, with the towns of Wilmington and Dover seeing especially widespread outages.

And Central Vermont Public Service Spokeswoman Christine Rivers said more than 40,000 customers in southern Vermont were without power Sunday, but by Sunday evening that number had dropped to about 28,000.

"Restoration efforts are completely dependent on the reopening and rebuilding of roads, as many roads are simple gone," Senior Vice President of Engineering, Operations and Customer Service Joe Kraus, stated in a release. "We have a tremendous number of outside crews from as far away as Texas to assist us with repairs, but we're being stymied by blocked roads."

Operations at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon were not affected by the storm.

"Entergy's nuclear generating plants continue to operate safely while supplying electricity to the region's customers," stated John Herron, president and CEO of Entergy Nuclear, in a release.

On Saturday Brown and Roberts, Hannaford and Price Chopper in Brattleboro, as well as Walmart in Hinsdale, N.H., were filled with people buying provisions such as oil lamps, wicks, batteries, tarps, propane tanks and boards and nails for windows, in preparation of the historically massive storm.

Jeremy and Janet Birch, of Westminster, said they purchased a new chain for their chainsaw, stocked more than 20 gallons of water, secured summer furniture, hanging plants and their barbecue and filled their motorcycle with gas just in case.

"I've been in the eye of a storm before," Jeremy said. "It was peaceful for a couple of minutes then it hit again."

Janet said they feel prepared and because of that, it's tough to think about the people who might not have been able to afford to purchase the necessary supplies. "We know how to survive without power," she said. "If the trees come down we'll cut our way out. But I can't imagine what it's like for those without a roof over their head."

Co-owner of Brown and Roberts, Paul Putnam, said the store has sold out of all of their D batteries, generators and nearly all of their flash lights.

Putnam said he knows people are on a budget and the staff has tried to let people know what they're buying, for example if they've picked up rechargeable batteries which require an initial charge versus pre-charged batteries.

He said Friday was the busiest day the store has had in the last four years and that he hopes the sales aren't bittersweet.

"I'm glad people are preparing, but hopefully they're not spending money they don't have," Putnam said.

Rivers said CVPS had extra crews waiting to go to work Sunday morning, but the quickly moving storm and deteriorating road conditions hampered their abilities to get to downed lines.

"It's going to be a long day," Rivers said early Sunday. "We expect widespread outages. We will work as quickly as we safely can to restore power to customers but it is likely going to get much worse before it gets better today."

Jon Potter and Josh Stilts contributed to this report.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.